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Cold snowy winters often form the setting for crime fiction but Louise Penny's 'Bury Your Dead' does not take place in a bleak Scandinavian landscape, the location is Quebec City, Canada. Inspector Armand Gamache is taking some time away from his post with the Surete de Quebec in the wake of an investigation that ended badly. Keen to find some peace and quiet Gamache takes himself off to the library of the Literary & Historical Society, the hub of the English speaking community of Quebec. Unfortunately for Gamache this place of sanctuary is violated when the dead body of an obsessed historian is found in the basement of the building; the man had spent a lifetime trying to find the burial place of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of the city of Quebec. Aware that this suspicious death could cause problems for the already strained relationship between Quebec's English and French speaking communities, the society's librarian asks Gamache to be involved in the investigation because she believes that he will have a more sympathetic attitude towards the English than some of the French police officers.
Reluctantly he agrees to help though he has other things on his mind; concerned that an innocent man has been convicted of murder, Gamache sends his junior, Jean Guy Beauvoir, out to the village of Three Pines to re-interview the witnesses. Beauvoir is also on leave, recovering from injuries he received in the same incident as his boss, and he's reluctant to go out to Three Pines; he'd rather be at home than knee deep in snow at Three Pines trying to exonerate a man he's certain is guilty.
Meanwhile Gamache is increasingly plagued with flashbacks to the events of several months ago; as each scene is played back in his mind a picture emerges of what happened and why Gamache has taken it so badly. While Jean Guy would rather forget, Gamache is not able to.
With three major threads to contend with 'Bury Your Dead' is a novel with a lot going on; as a newcomer to the series I felt that there was actually too much for a first timer to take in though I'd struggle to say what should have been left out. I know little about Canada, at least in terms of its history, even though it's a country that feels so familiar to me. With two locations I liked the comparison between rural Canada and the city, and I particularly liked the descriptions of how Old Quebec looks in the winter. Setting the scene well is one of author Louise Penny's talents: her depiction of the sombre, reading room, full of important leather bound tomes is very atmospheric and, likewise, I loved her descriptions of the cosy homes of the citizens of Three Pines contrasted with the freezing environment outside.
The central thread - the suspicious death of Renaud Augustin, the historian, in the Literary & Historical Society's building - is well constructed and gripping. I was curious as Gamache to know what this tenacious old man might have discovered that might cause someone to want to murder him. To further the investigation Gamache starts to read up on de Champlain: I felt that Penny relates too much of the history of Quebec within the story and I frequently skipped a few paragraphs because I was anxious to return to the fictional story.
The storyline that sees Jean Guy go out to Three Pines is an odd one. As a newcomer to the series I obviously didn't know much about the events that saw the village's bistro owner sent to prison, convicted of murder; this story is part of the previous instalment 'The Brutal Telling'. From the point of view of a lover of crime fiction, I must confess that the idea that the outcome of one novel in which I have invested time and effort, could potentially be overturned in the next sits uncomfortably with me. It also says to me that these novels don't work so well as stand alones and I do wish that I'd not come in at this point. I've since read that Three Pines features more prominently in the previous novels and that Gamache's soujourn in Quebec is something of a departure. To me the Three Pines storyline came across as 'cosy crime' fiction and jarred uncomfortably with the other plots which are more hard hitting. Of the three stories this would be the one I'd have omitted but it seems like it could have been included as a way of providing an easier return to Three Pines for a future instalment by tidying up some loose ends.
The final thread is certainly the most engaging and gripping and the one I most pleased to find the narrative picking up once more. Penny writes superbly here and I loved the way the story is drip fed to really ratchet up the tension. Had it not been for this element I'd have struggled to finish 'Bury Your Dead. The other two plots just didn't work together in the same novel which is a criticism of the content and not the assembly of the component parts.
I don't feel much inclined to start at the beginning now I have been so disappointed but I would encourage other fans of crime fiction to become acquainted with Gamache and the denizens of Three Pines and to read the novels in sequence. Louise Penny has clearly created something quite special but I think that in this case she has over stretched herself.