Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny’s follow up to The Brutal Telling, takes place in and around Québec City during Carnival. This book is a little different in structure from most of Penny’s books since it revolves around three separate and distinct story threads.

As the book opens, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is recuperating from physical and emotional wounds at the home of Emile Comeau, his former boss and longtime mentor. While he’s in Québec, Gamache, with his lovable dog, Henri, decides to do a little historical research at the local Literary and Historical Society, the library that holds all of the books and papers that detail the history of Québec’s tiny – and dwindling – English speaking community. It’s this research, as well as the Society’s elderly librarian, that lead to Gamache’s unofficial involvement in the murder of an eccentric historian who spent most of his life searching for the burial site of Samuel de Champlain, Québec’s founder.

About the same time Gamache becomes involved in the murder surrounding the Literary and Historical Society, he begins to doubt that the resolution of his last “Three Pines” case, told in the book previous to this one, The Brutal Telling, is correct. In fact, thinks Gamache, there is a man sitting in prison, convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s colleague, is also on leave and recovering from injuries sustained in the same tragic incident in which Gamache, himself, was injured. The Inspector sends a reluctant Jean Guy to Three Pines to try to ferret out anything the team might have missed earlier.

The third story strand is the retelling of the tragic events that led to the injuries sustained by Inspector Gamache and Jean Guy Beauvoir. This story strand is told mainly through Gamache’s remembered conversation with another of his colleagues. It’s one of the saddest stories ever associated with Inspector Gamache, and though the reader doesn’t learn the details until late in the book, he or she, with mounting horror, can pretty much guess what they are, even while hoping against hope that his or her suspicions prove to be entirely wrong.

Though I love Three Pines, the little village where most of the “Inspector Gamache” mysteries are set, I also loved the fact that this book, for the most part, was set in Old Québec City. I almost felt like I was following Gamache around the city and seeing the sights through his eyes, and it was very enjoyable and made me want to visit Old Québec sometime very soon. (I've visited several times, but it’s been years.) I also enjoyed the history provided by Penny, much of it unknown to me prior to reading this book. Some readers felt Penny included too much of the history of Québec; I thought she included just the right amount. I didn’t know the animosity between the English and the Francophones ran so high (still), so that was an eye-opener for me, among other things.

I do agree with reviewers who found the pace of the novel leisurely and rather slow moving, though this leisurely pace didn’t bother me at all. At any rate, I don’t usually enjoy novels with a fast, breakneck pace. I like my mysteries to be slow-simmered and fully developed, and this one filled that bill nicely. I do think the braided plot served to slow the pace down quite a bit, though Penny does a wonderful job moving from one story strand to another and making Gamache’s flashbacks real to the reader. I felt very emotionally involved in the book, from the very first page.

Penny’s characters – most of them recurring – are, to my way of thinking, at least, fully developed, whether we like them or not. Personally, I like Armand Gamache, and I’m glad Penny chooses to fill us in on his life outside of work and doesn’t write him as a “static” character the way Agatha Christie wrote Hercule Poirot. I enjoy all the denizens of Three Pines and all the people associated with the Sûreté du Québec. I enjoy spending time with them and getting to know them better.

Thankfully, Penny’s “good guys” are always a bit tarnished, and her “bad guys” have good qualities as well, though it’s very difficult-to-impossible for me to “like” a person – even a character in a book – who cold-bloodedly kills another. Still, even though I don’t necessarily like Penny’s killers, I do understand their motivations, thanks to their creator.

Penny’s prose is vintage Louise Penny. Yes, she still uses the maddening phrases that I find so jarring and jolting. I have no idea why she writes in this fashion unless it’s for emphasis. I think her books would be better served by foregoing the awkward phrasing and writing elegant sentences instead, but that’s not my call to make. Even though the phrases, more often than not, make me want to hurl the book across the room and slam it into the far wall, I find the plots interesting enough (so far) to keep on reading. The awkward phrasing didn’t seem quite as awkward or egregious in this book as it was in this book’s predecessor, The Brutal Telling, but make no mistake, it was still there.

This story takes place in the midst of winter, and Penny uses the cold, snowy weather very effectively in the story. I can’t imagine it taking place in summer, though of course it could have taken place at any time of the year, and both Three Pines and Québec are charming in both winter and summer. A quote from the book might help to show how important winter is in this novel:

And, when the winter sun set on a Québec forest, monsters crawled out of the shadows. Not the B-grade movie monsters, not zombies or mummies or space aliens. But older, subtler wraiths. Invisible creatures that rode in on plunging temperatures. Death by freezing, death by exposure, death by gong even a foot off the path, and getting lost. Death, ancient and patient, waited in Québec forests for the sun to set.

Bury Your Dead is the story of people who can’t, or who have great difficulty, in letting go of the past. Indeed, the entire province of Québec shares the characters’ obsession with holding onto the past – for good or for ill – in its quest to find the burial place of Samuel de Champlain. I loved this theme, and I thought Penny did a marvelous job of exploiting it. Many of her characters are haunted by their past, many have trouble forgiving themselves for things they couldn’t help, many are deeply flawed, and all are deeply human. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, especially, is a man who is forever changed by a random act of violence he mistakenly believes he should have been able to prevent.

While I very much enjoyed reading this “Inspector Gamache” mystery, for me, it wasn’t the strongest book in the series, though there’s no denying it packed an emotional punch. If you’re new to the series, I don’t think this book, or even the book immediately preceding this one, The Brutal Telling, is the best place to begin. I would begin with “Book One” and read through in order, though all the books were designed to be “standalone” mysteries. The characters, however, grow and change and develop, and this is best experienced by reading the books from “Book One” to “Book Seven” in chronological order.

I’ve read, in the past, that Penny was only planning four “Inspector Gamache” mysteries, however, to date, she’s written seven. Personally, I don’t know if there will be any more or not. I hope so.

Books in the “Inspector Gamache” series of mysteries, in chronological order are:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder/The Murder Stone
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick of the Light

You can visit Louise Penny’s Website at


Recommended: Fans of Louise Penny can’t miss this book, and I expect most of them have already read it. New readers of the “Inspector Gamache” series should, in my opinion, start with “Book One,” Still Life, though each book is written to stand alone. I like this series very much, though it’s not nearly as complex, convoluted, or dark as the “Inspector Lynley” series from Elizabeth George, which remains my all time favorite.


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Nice blog.

Rachel said...

This is a marvelous series and I just finished "Bury Your Dead". I'm still ruminating on things, which is how I found your review. Can't wait to did into Penny's next Gamache book " A Trick of the Light".

Literary Corner Cafe said...

Hi Rachel,

I'm especially interested in "A Trick of the Light" because it concerns the big art show Clara Morrow has been waiting for.

Let us know how you liked the book when you finish.