“Death, ancient and patient, waited in Quebec forests for the sun to set.” – Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

March 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Bury Your Dead is the latest novel by Louise Penny featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. I was amazed to realize that this is only the sixth entry in the series – I would have been less surprised had it been  the sixteenth. I say that because the world Penny has created is so fully fleshed out; one could be forgiven for thinking it much older  than it is. And never has that world resonated more vividly than in does in Bury Your Dead.

Penny tracks three separate crimes in this novel. One is a holdover from the book immediately preceding it, The Brutal Telling. It involves the denizens of  Three Pines, a semi-rural village in southern Quebec that has a timeless, Brigadoon feel about it. The second involves a planned act of  terrorism. Through their resourcefulness and heroism,  the officers of the Surete have averted what would have been an unmitigated disaster, both for Canada and the northeastern U.S. But by doing their jobs with selfless dedication, members of the force have paid a terrible price. As Bury Your Dead opens, Gamache and others are struggling to recover from the operation’s traumatic outcome.

Armand Gamache is the very model of decency and generosity; he’s book-loving and family oriented in the tradition of sleuths such as Reg Wexford and Peter Pascoe. (Admittedly, this last attribute makes me wonder why he chooses to recuperate away from his wife.) It is while the Chief Inspector is staying in Quebec City with Emile, his old friend and mentor, that the third crime occurs. Augustin Renaud is an elderly eccentric whose passion is Samuel de Champlain. Champlain is considered by many to be the father of Quebec.

Yet there is no place where the citizens of the province can go to pay hommage to the founder. Through a series of complicated maneuvers, his burial place has been lost. After years of relentless searching, however, the hallowed  ground may at last have been found. By none other than Augustin Renaud.

Renaud’s purported discovery has weighty implications for the small English speaking community struggling to survive and to preserve its own history in Francophone Quebec. The consequences for Renaud prove fatal.

I’m still trying to decide in my own mind whether Louise Penny tried to cover too much ground in this novel. To begin with, there are the three criminal investigations, of varying degrees of complexity. Then there is the (admittedly fascinating) history of Quebec, going back several hundred years. With novels like this, some narrative strands are bound to emerge as more  compelling than others. And when this happens the reader, eager to follow the most riveting thread, can become impatient with the rest.

But basically I loved this book. The reason has mostly to do with the author’s vibrant evocation of Quebec City, a place of whose existence I was only dimly aware. Several people familiar with the city and its environs have spoken feelingly to me about the bitter winters. Yet this is the season about which Penny is writing, and to my mind, she makes it seem positively alluring:

Lights were appearing in homes and restaurants, reflecting off the white snow. It was a city that lent itself to winter,  and to darkness. It became even cozier, even more magical, like a fairy-tale kingdom.

Click here for video from this year’s Winter Carnaval. This celebration is ongoing during Gamache’s stay in the city.

Linguistic confusion is a source of comic relief in this novel. I love the matter of fact way in which Penny reproduces the garbled results when English speakers gamely try to express themselves in the lovely but challenging langue francaise:

She’d even given some of the more brazen a brief tour of the library, pointing out the fine pillows on the walls, the collection of figs on the shelves asking if any of them would like to become umlauts.

(You well ask yourself: what kind of library is this anyway?  In fact, it’s the library of the Literary and Historical Society, an actual place where, Penny informs us on her acknowledgments page, she and her husband spent many happy hours deep in research for this book.)

There’s a real need for some lighthearted intervals in Bury Your Dead. I’ve rarely read a work of crime fiction so freighted with grief and remorse.

This is an eloquent, poignant, beautifully written novel.

Louise Penny


In her Acknowledgments, Penny recommends Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer. During their sojourn in Quebec City, she and her husband had the good fortune to hear Fischer speak at a government sponsored symposium. (Isn’t that a gorgeous cover? The painting is The Geographer by Vermeer:  .)

This novel also introduced me to Le Chateau Frontenac, a luxury hotel with an illustrious history. It’s located  high on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River; the views from its restaurant windows are spectacular. Just ask Chief Inspector Gamache, who confidently asserts that for a Quebecois such as himself, no other vista can touch it. He then adds, in yet another of the historical asides that enrich this novel:

From the bar he could see up and down the great river, the view so distant it broke into  the past. From there, Gamache could see four hundred years into the past. The ships, surprisingly small and fragile, sailing down from the Atlantic, dropping anchor at the narrowest spot.

Kebek. An Algonquin word. Where the river narrows.

Le Chateau Frontenac


  1. Kay said,

    I still haven’t recovered from her last book where one of the key ensemble players turned out to be the culprit. Is the restaurant still in business?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Never fear, Kay; the restaurant continues to flourish!

  2. Kay Wisniewski said,

    Oh, Roberta, I finally read this. I think it’s her best ever. It’s on my best of the year list. I have now forgiven her for the fifth book in the series. The theme of this could well be “I was wrong,” which Gamache’s mentor rightly calls one of the four most important sentences for a detective–or this reader– to be able to say.

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