Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Louise Penny has defied time and time again any doubters as to her proficiency for coming up with more original mysteries for Chief Inspector Gamache to solve, and in the sixth book of the series, Bury Your Dead, he finds himself pushed to his limits. Recovering from a horribly-failed police operation, Gamache is drawn into the murder investigation surrounding a historical society in Quebec, and most surprisingly, Samuel de Champlain himself.
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Louise Penny Exhausts Gamache to his Limits
Some characters are built sturdier than others, but if there’s one uniting factor among recurring ones, it’s their authors’ propensity to test them in increasingly demanding ways. Louise Penny has already put Chief Inspector Gamache through the ringer on more than one occasion through the series, and in the sixth book, Bury Your Dead, she steps it up a notch and challenges her protagonist to a new extreme.
The novel (which, by the way, can be read as a standalone work without prior knowledge of the series) begins with Gamache spending some time in Quebec city during the Winter Carnival. He’s attempting to psychologically recover from a recent police operation which went terribly wrong, leaving one officer dead and another one held hostage.
While trying to figure out what really transpired, a second anvil falls on his head in the form of a rather unexpected murder. In the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec a body has been found belonging to an amateur archaeologist, bludgeoned to death with a shovel. The only real clue they have was the young man’s obsession: finding the burial place of Samuel de Champlain, founder of Canada’s first colony.
The only way to find the truth, Gamache understands, is to immerse himself in the history behind Champlain, leading him on a path filled with questions, disputed facts and long-buried secrets waiting to resurface. However, as the dead body demonstrates, it’s the kind of path which could put him on a collision course with some murderously obsessive individuals.
Amidst all this chaos brewing in Gamache’s life one final element introduces itself: his right-hand man, Detective Jean-Guy Bouvier, is back in Three Pines to see if perhaps they arrested the wrong man in their last case. While the suspect was successfully convicted, mistakes were made in police procedure, and the Chief Inspector can’t rest until he knows the whole truth beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The Ambitious Spread of Bury Your Dead
Up until now, the novels in the Chief Inspector Gamache series have been focusing on two, maybe three plot lines at most, and this time around Louise Penny evidently tries her hand at something different. I’ll be the first to admit I was a little skeptical and thought she might spread herself thin, but thankfully she proved my doubts wrong.
In Bury Your Dead there are four principal mysteries which take up the pages, although naturally, they weren’t all created equal. For starters, I felt there was a greater of Bury Your Dead focus placed on the murder at hand in the historical society, and as is always the case, Louise Penny unravels this thread masterfully and surprised me on more than one occasion.
Not everything buried is actually dead. For many, the past is alive.― Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead
I found it especially remarkable how she managed to weave the history, or lack thereof in certain instances, behind Samuel de Champlain into the investigative process. His connection to the story ends up making him into something of a main character, and I found myself eager to learn more about him. A miracle in itself, considering how fed up we were of hearing his name during school lessons.
The other plot thread surrounding the failed police operation is developed separately in its own right, and while it does receive a bit less focus, I found it no less interesting than the archaeologist’s story. It’s quite grim in its nature and promises complexity from the start, enough to where I believe it could have been weaved into a separate book.
Finally, Detective Jean-Guy Bouvier’s work in Three Pines felt like a nice little extra which, while certainly being an interesting excursion into procedural police work, simply didn’t catch my attention like the other plots did. It’s by no means superfluous and has its own clever moments, but something tells me it’s partly there to maintain our connection to the beloved little village where Gamache has done much of his work in the past.
A Departure from the Village
Speaking of Three Pines, I believe this marks the first time where Gamache departs from it for the majority of the story, instead spending his time in the historically-charged Quebec City during the locally-famous Winter Carnival. I think no matter how much we all love the village of Three Pines, we can recognize the importance of taking momentary breaks from it during the series.
Now a trademark of Louise Penny‘s works, her descriptions of the city, its architecture, atmosphere, history, and the people in it are the kind every author could learn from, whether aspiring or established. Rather than just making it feel like a setting for the story, she paints it into the real locale it is and always finds the correct words to capture the feeling one gets when in it.
And while forgetting the past might condemn people to repeat it, remembering it too vividly condemned them to never leave.― Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead
As a matter of fact, I’d say she goes into a fair amount of depth in regards to Quebec’s history, and I’d say such segments do require the reader to have an interest in history to be enjoyed. Not that she ever stalls the story to convey meaningless details, but the pace does slow down when we take these excursionary detours, and it’s something one ought to be prepared for.
Not limiting her powers of descriptions to the setting, Penny also applies them to the characters as well, often giving us a window into their inner worlds, the emotions they’re feeling, the thoughts and ambitions governing them. This goes double for Chief Inspector Gamache, whose amount of inner turmoil will likely soon grow too great for the planet to contain.
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Speaking of the overall feeling of Bury Your Dead, it’s not quite a happy-go-lucky type of murder investigation. It is fairly dark and emotionally-painful at times, but despite all the sadness glimmers of hope do appear, and the closer we get to the ending the more uplifting they become. In other words, it has a bit of a realistic side to it.
The Final Verdict
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny is an ambitious and successful effort by the author to deviate from some of the norms in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, taking him out of his comfort zone and putting him to the test like never before. If you consider yourself a fan of the series, or are looking for an exciting police procedural with a strong historical element to it, then I’d say you’ve found the perfect book for your next read.
Louise Penny is a Canadian author who has taken to writing mystery novels where the events unfold in the province of Quebec, following the inspector Armand Gamache. Some of her better-known novels include Still Life which earned her the 2005 New Blood Dagger Award, A Fatal Grace which was the winner of the 2007 Agatha Award, as well as six additional Agatha Christie awards to this day.