Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the protagonist in Louise Penny’s debut novel Still Life, is a different breed of detective, unlike most detectives I saw on television and movies or read about in other mystery novels. He’s intelligent but caring, driven, but not arrogant. He’s softer than Sherlock Holmes, though just as observant. Gamache isn’t afraid to follow his own moral code, even if that means going against authority. Most of all, he cared about people–not just the people he helped in his cases, but the people on his team as well.
When we first meet Gamache, he examines the body of Jane Neal, an older woman who lived in Three Pines and was killed in the woods surrounding the small town. Gamache spends some time observing her body, but what stood out to me in this passage is the emotional look we are given at Gamache as he views the deceased’s hands.
“He always felt a pang when looking at the hands of the newly dead, imagining all the objects and people those hands had held. The food, the faces, the doorknobs (34).
This stood out to me because we, as readers and viewers, rarely get to see a detective acknowledge their human emotions or allow themselves a moment of grief for the violent loss of life. It seems like pop culture is full of hard-edged detectives who would never allow themselves to care for the victims or to grant themselves a moment to imagine what life had been like for that person before they were murdered. I could tell right away we were dealing with a detective who wouldn’t shut out his emotions or view them as weaknesses. Instead, his emotions and his empathy are tools in his mystery-solving arsenal.
Armand Gamache spends much of his time in Three Pines observing people and their actions. Of course, he questions suspects and looks for clues, but he does more than talk to people. He listens and seems to care about what they have to say.
Gamache also involves the town in his investigations. He understands to solve a crime, you have to interact with human beings involved, which is what he does with the people of Three Pines. But he also understands his presence might cause a disturbance in the town and the villagers’ day-to-day lives. He knows people might not trust him to do his job and treat him with suspicion. He tells them:
“This is how it starts. You’ll see us everywhere. We’ll be asking questions, checking backgrounds, and talking–not just to you but to your neighbors and employers and your family and your friends. (86).
He cares about the people in the village, but he is also strong and firm and refuses to be intimidated by anyone, particularly Ruth Zardo. She accuses Gamache of not doing his job.
“Ruth Zardo, my job is to find out who killed your friend. And I will do that. I will do that in the manner that I see fit. I will not be bullied, and I will not be treated with disrespect. (And) never speak to me like that again” (53).
Gamache’s strength of character isn’t ego-based. He’s not afraid to ask questions about something he doesn’t have a lot of knowledge of. He’s interested to learn, and he acknowledges his shortcomings. His morals and personal code of ethics doesn’t just affect the people in Three Pines, but extends to his team as well.
Gamache instructs his team to work as a cohesive unit and contribute their ideas to the investigation. When he notices that one of his team members, Nicol, separates from the others and operates independently, he takes her aside. He acknowledges the pressure she’s under but wants her to be more open and less cynical. While others seem to think that Nicol is a lost cause and will never learn to work appropriately with others, Gamache strives to see the best in her to the point where his second in command states that Gamache’s fatal flaw is to help other people, that he is “Far too compassionate” (107).
After finishing Still Life, I concluded Gamache is my favorite type of detective for the simple reason that he is layered. He’s not a hard-boiled, rude, arrogant detective who knows everything and can solve the case in only a matter of days. He is caring, intelligent, and observant and grows to care about the people of Three Pines during his investigation. He allows himself to form almost friendships with the people in the village, even though he knows one person is a murderer. Gamache also doesn’t shut out his emotions or view them as weaknesses, and he doesn’t seem afraid to admit when he might be wrong.
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a good hardboiled detective story, but Louise Penny’s debut novel allows its characters to feel human and multidimensional, and in some ways, Armand Gamache appears to be a big softy, but he proves quickly he’s not to be underestimated.