Any appearance by the charming, empathetic and implacable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the Sûreté du Québec's homicide squad, is welcome. But there is added value in the sixth entry of this crime-fiction series, which not only sustains three narrative threads but moves well beyond the peculiarly murderous village of Three Pines in Quebec's Eastern Townships, where the previous five books have been mostly set.
When Bury Your Dead opens, Gamache is on leave, recovering from physical and psychological wounds received during a shootout with a mysterious terrorist gang. He is staying with an old friend and former colleague in Quebec City, eating good food, walking his dog in the bitter February cold and pondering the history of his province, using the resources of the anglophone library of the Literary and Historical Society, known by the city's dwindling English-speaking population as the Lit and His.
But murder will out, it seems. And soon the body of an obsessive amateur archeologist is discovered in the cellars of the Lit and His, and inevitably, Gamache is drawn into the mystery.
The victim's life had revolved around the nearly 400-year-old mystery of the missing body of Samuel de Champlain, the Father of New France and the founder of Quebec City in 1608.
Despite his central role in the history of Quebec, and of Canada, nobody knows where his body was buried after his death in 1635.
As Gamache doggedly pursues the murderer, he becomes convinced that the crime is somehow linked to the historical mystery, and that the relations between the city's English- and French-speaking populations is at stake. He must also deal with the memory of the botched shootout, in which he was badly wounded and one of his men died. This part of the novel is told in flashbacks that gain urgency and power as the story progresses, never interfering with the main thread of the narrative.
In another plot-line, Gamache reopens the investigation into a mystery he thought he had solved in his last outing, in The Brutal Telling, when much-loved bistro owner Olivier was convicted of murder. "He didn't do it, you know," Gabi, Olivier's partner, writes to Gamache daily. Gamache is feeling more than enough self-doubt at this point, and dispatches his cynical deputy, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to Three Pines to reopen the case against Olivier.
Louise Penny's portrait of Quebec City is as lovingly detailed and evocative as anything she has written, and her control over this intricate blending of history and mystery is absolute. Furthermore, the deepening of Gamache's character is profoundly satisfying. The book, obviously, is a must-read for her fans, and demonstrates once again that she is in the first rank of crime-fiction writers in Canada, or indeed, in the world.
H.J. Kirchhoff is an editor in the Books section of The Globe and Mail.