Bury Your Dead is the sixth of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels (and the third I’ve read this year.) It follows closely on The Brutal Telling, revisiting events from that book and following through on the heavy foreshadowing Penny did there. It also has three of its own mysteries, so it’s a tightly-packed novel. This one takes place mostly not in the dreamy little village of Three Pines, but in Quebec City in the middle of winter, during Carnival.
There’s a lot of melancholy here. Chief Inspector Gamache, usually the center of calm, wisdom, and emotional insight in these novels, has been knocked off base by two things: a recent terrorist attack gone badly wrong, in which he and some of his people were injured, and the events of The Brutal Telling, in which he’s afraid he jailed the wrong person for a nasty murder. Gamache is staying with his friend and mentor in Quebec City, trying to get his feet back under him, and he is doing a little desultory research at the Lit and Hist, a small library maintained by the tiny, proud, defensive English-speaking community in the city. When… you guessed it… someone is murdered, and the body turns up in the library’s cellar.
The narrative goes back and forth. We see Gamache’s work to uncover the murderer of Augustin Renaud, an eccentric who has been working all his life to find the body of Samuel Champlain, Quebec’s founder. We hear his anguish as he remembers the events of the terrorist attack, and although we don’t know exactly what happened until late in the novel (which feels a bit manipulative, frankly) we’re able to guess enough to hope we’re wrong. We also follow Gamache’s own guesswork about Samuel Champlain himself, a historical mystery that doesn’t have a good solution. In Three Pines, Jean Guy Beauvoir has been sent to see if there’s a chance they got the wrong murderer last time; is there something they missed? And although he doesn’t believe a word of it, he obeys the boss and finds himself — eventually — able to open his mind. The braid of this plot, complex as it is, is well-handled; Penny knows what she’s doing, and she keeps the whole machine moving well.
Teresa just posted a critical review of the first of these mysteries, saying it was a bit too cozy for her and that she didn’t find the treatment of the antagonist very nuanced. Fair enough. I like these books pretty well, and as they go on they tend to give all the characters a fair shake, even those you think are never going to develop or grow. The one thing that bothers me about them — and this hasn’t changed in six books — is the prose. Louise Penny really, really likes sentence fragments. From no more than two or three random pages:
Gamache returned the older man’s smile and made a fist of his right hand. To stop the trembling.
Across tables across the province he and Gamache had sat. Just like this.
He wished he could take that hand and hold it steady and tell him it would be all right. Because it would, he knew. With time.
He examined Elizabeth. Plain, tall, and slim.
Aghhhh! This kind of choppy writing is absolutely endemic to Penny’s prose and once you see it, it can’t be unseen. It’s making me asthmatic. It’s pulling me out of the story. As much as I enjoy these books — and I do, I think there’s plenty here to like — I have to steel myself for this style. Perhaps this is the problem with reading three of them in a year? Or with reading them next to W.G. Sebald, with his eight-page sentence? Whatever it is — I will keep reading and enjoying these mysteries, but with the caveat that the choppy prose has been giving me more and more trouble as we go on.