Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny is number 6 in the Armand Gamache mystery series. It is also far and away the best one so far - I still have A Trick of the Light and The Beautiful Mystery to get to, both of which have won much acclaim and awards - A Trick of the Light won the Anthony Award in 2011. Bury Your Dead won the Nero Award, the Anthony Award, the Agatha Award, Macavity Award, and the Canadian Arthur Ellis Award, all in 2010. It deserved every one of them, too. It is an outstanding mystery, weaving it's way between historical Quebec City, modern day Three Pines, Samuel de Champlain, the English and French in Quebec City, and redemption.
Much of the novel occurs in the deepest part of winter in Quebec City, in the deep freeze which descends on the city in February. The Carnivale d'Hiver - Winter Carnival- plays a background role in the setting. The Winter Carnival is one of the biggest festivals in winter in Canada (and the US), drawing in tourists from all over the world to celebrate winter. In the midst of all this revelry, Armand Gamache gets up at 3:30 am, and wanders in the deep heart of the winter night, unable to rest. He has come to Quebec City to heal, staying with his former mentor Emile from the Surete de Quebec, who has long been retired. Gamache cannot forgive himself for a mistake in judgement he made, a judgement that had terrible consequences for some of his team. Much of the story is told in an unfolding chapter switching sequence, with Armand dipping back into painful memories, finding his way to the central image that has so devastated him. It's the way the mind works with something painful, and it is fascinating to watch him make his way back to and through the events. He is trying to find some way to live with the memories. At the same time, this question of judgement has caused him to look back on the case he solved just previous to the events of this novel, in The Murder Stone, where Olivier from the Three Pines was discovered to be guilty of a terrible crime. He sets his second in command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is also recovering in his way from the events that torment the Chief, to discover if Olivier is innocent, if Gamache's team overlooked some evidence. This is all because Olivier's partner Gabriel refuses to believe Olivier did it and sends a letter every day to Armand that says only, Why did he move the body? This kind of faith also moves through this book - faith that people have to sustain them, faith in the face of adversity, faith that something can be found that is good and worth protecting.
This is a book about uncovering the evidence to lead to the truth, and about the dead. How the dead are venerated, how they are kept alive in our memories, how they can shape a place and a time, and even a province - Samuel de Champlain was the discoverer and founder of Quebec City, helped by the aboriginal peoples in the area (the Huron mainly) to survive the first winters. While Gamache is recovering, a laughable mad man who is determined to find Champlain's body somewhere under the earth in Quebec City, is murdered. In the unlikeliest of places, in a hidden corner of the English community that still survives in Quebec City. So in order to find out who killed him and not set of hysteria and chaos in the media, Gamache is asked to lend unofficial assistance as he is there and can speak better English than the officers in the Quebec City police force investigating the crime do. Gamache is able to speak to the tiny English community where the murder took place. The English in Quebec city are an endangered minority, and the book delves into some of the reasons why, dating back to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when Montcalm lost to Wolfe. Gamache wonders through the book, how did Montcalm feel, when the English did the impossible, the unexpected, and climbed the cliff walls to surround the much larger French army on the Plains? When he sent for reinforcements, but they never came? While a small part of the novel, it is this interest in the history around him that makes this mystery stand out. Gamache ponders Wolfe, Montcalm, and how the battle was won and lost, and how the English came to rule Quebec City and Canada, against the odds. He compares the battle Montcalm lost, with the errors in judgement he made himself. How can he bury the dead if he can't forget what happened? Much of this book is about characters who can't forget what happened, and how they have to learn to let go and bury their dead, or they get stuck and can't move into what is good in life. Powerful thoughts in this mystery.
This setting, in the heart of old Quebec City, where Samuel de Champlain is thought to be buried, where the battle of the Plains of Abraham was fought that decided the course of a country, is unique in major mysteries published. I can't think of another mystery that covers this kind of politics and history and murder, set in Canada. It makes for fascinating reading - plus a bit of homesickness for me, for I spent three years as a teenager living in Quebec City, graduating from high school (secondary school in Quebec) there. It is a beautiful city, and reading this book took me back to Winter Carnivals I had attended long ago, and the old walled city, and the Plains of Abraham, that my school bus drove by every day to and from our high school. I went to one of the three English high schools then in Quebec City.
Bury Your Dead is a very good title for this book. It's like a book of Gamache thinking over what happened to him, and this grief gives a kind of purity to his thoughts. We get a glimpse of how he thinks, and sees the world, and of what a kind, gentle, thoughtful man he is - and yet finds so difficult to forgive himself his failures. There are all kinds of acts of faith in this book, from Renaud, the man digging for Champlain's burial place, to the faith of Reine Marie and Emile in letting Armand have his space and heal at his own pace, to the Literary and Historical Society deep in the heart of the city, the last bastion of English language books and history that still survives, and the faith of the people who keep the library going against all odds. It's also the faith of Gabri in his partner, and the faith that Jean-Guy places in the Chief, that the whole team places in him. And how Armand finds his way to peace so he can rejoin life again. It's a beautiful mystery,
I read this a few weeks ago, and I have not been able to forget it. It is an outstanding mystery. It is one of my books of the year, too, I know that already.