I had never met Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, the most prestigious homicide unit in Canada, prior to Bury Your Dead. This was the sixth in the Gamache series and there have now been two more added for a total of eight. I've added all the other seven to my "to be read" list. This was a wonderful read and Armand Gamache is a wonderful character, a humane and intelligent police officer who cares about his agents and the communities in which he works and cares about getting the job done right. He cares, in short, about justice.
We meet Gamache in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy that has hit his Surete force. Agents have been killed and wounded as a result of an investigation gone wrong. Gamache himself was grievously wounded, almost killed, but he blames himself for the deaths and injuries his officers suffered. He is on leave from his job in order to recover from his injuries, both physical and psychological. He has gone to old Quebec City to visit his friend and mentor, Emile, to find sanctuary and comfort and to try to come to terms with what has happened.
But even in Quebec City, ensconced in the home of his friend, murder manages to intrude.
Gamache has been whiling away the hours doing research on the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, at the library of the Literary and Historical Society, an organization set up to preserve and protect the Anglo culture in Quebec. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a turning point in the struggle between England and France over supremacy and control of Canada. Gamache is fascinated by the mistakes made by the French General Montcalm in the battle. He identifies with him because he feels keenly that he has made mistakes also. But one morning when he arrives at the "Lit and His" to do his reading, he finds the place overrun by police. A dead body has been found in the basement. An amateur archaeologist, obsessed with Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec, has been murdered, hit over the head with the shovel he had been digging with. When the local police realize who Gamache is, they ask him to help with the investigation.
Meanwhile, Gamache has also had second thoughts about one of his own previous investigations in the little village of Three Pines. A hermit had been killed there. The evidence led to the owner of a local bistro as the murderer. But the man's partner is convinced he didn't do it and he wages a campaign of daily letters to Gamache to convince him of this. Beset by doubts, Gamache asks his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to investigate with fresh eyes. Beauvoir also is recovering from injuries in the incident where his chief was wounded, but he takes up the investigation as a welcome diversion from dark thoughts.
Thus, we have a story that runs on two tracks, covers two investigations. But wait! There is a third track. We get to learn, through flashbacks experienced by Armand and Jean-Guy, of the horrible incident that did so much damage to the Surete, an incident which only the action and sacrifice of the men and women of the Surete managed to prevent from doing inestimable destruction to the whole of eastern Canada and the United States. That Louise Penny is able to keep all three of these tracks going at the same time, rather like keeping three balls in the air simultaneously, is really a tour de force of writing skill.
Penny's plotting is truly amazing. Almost from the first page, the reader is on pins and needles wondering what will happen next. She builds the suspense steadily, and even though she plays fair with the clues, near the end there is a plot twist that was so unexpected it left me with my mouth hanging open.
Not only are the plotting, the characters, and the stories themselves examples of a writer on top of her game, but throughout she weaves in tidbits of the history of Canada, much appreciated by this ignorant American reader. Like many Americans I suspect, I have a great fondness and admiration for our northern neighbor, but little knowledge of the nitty gritty facts of its history. It was good to be able to learn just a little bit here. Maybe I'll learn even more from the seven other books in the series. I look forward to that.