Two years ago I picked up “Bury Your Dead” from a second hand book stall and on reading the jacket notes I was enticed by the image of a beautiful Quebec winter juxtaposed with murder in a sedate and dusty historical society. Little did I know that I was about to be hooked but by the time I had finished that book I was already scouring book stalls and charity shops for the rest of the series. When I couldn’t get them all secondhand I bit the bullet and ordered the rest.
Penny is a Canadian author who started writing in her early 50s. Previously a journalist and broadcaster she imbues her books with a maturity of observation honed by her years of listening and precise questioning. As she pust it “Listening. That was the key. A good interviewer rarely speaks, she listens. Closely and carefully”.
Her love for the Canadian weather and landscape in every season is apparent in each of the novels and is elemental in many of the stories – as is the tension between the crazy ‘Anglais’ and the French speaking Quebecers. However what I find particularly attractive about her work is not the new murder that each book presents but the real story that lies in the lives and backgrounds of the characters who recur throughout the series. An entire web of relationships going back decades is gradually pieced together and referenced throughout – even when a character does not appear in a book they are still mentioned by the others. The central figure is Chief Inspector Gamache, warm, wise, calm and thoughtful he heads up the Homicide Division of the Surete. He is a pillar of humanity and integrity and yet he has learned that betrayal often comes from those who are closest.
Penny is in no rush to disclose the backgrounds and baggage of her characters. Instead she presents them to us as strangers occasionally display odd behaviours and mannerisms that are left unexplained– it is the quirks, losses and fears that underpin those behaviours that she gently reveals to us as the stories unfold. I am sure that for many readers Ruth Zardo becomes a firm favourite. Elderly, dictatorial, extremely rude and given to drinking other people’s whisky out of vases, Ruth is a broken down old poet with an incredible soul. She is both gifted and cursed by being able to see past the façade of others and expresses the pain and loss in exquisite poetry and opens her withered heart enough to pour out her love on a duckling she adopts. Clara, another fascinating character and a local artist, paints Ruth’s portrait and shows her as an aged, forgotten and embittered Virgin Mary who at the final moment sees hope. The rescuing of lame ducks, both figurative and actual, stands as a metaphor for redemption and hope.
Gamache is laughed at by many of his colleagues for choosing officers who have been rejected by other commands, officers who are misfits, from which to build his team. His belief in redemption places strain on his second in command Jean-Guy who occasionally forgets that he also was ‘rescued’ by Gamache. The relationship between these men is many-layered and intense and Penny wove into their story the damage caused by addiction and fear and the rehabilitation of the soul. All the characters continue maturing while also revealing more about their pasts; loves lost, dreams despoiled and friends found. The intricacy and delicacy of the back stories is testament to her observational skills and even references events in the life of Penny herself. The title of this feature is from a poem (Marylyn Plessners’s ‘Beyond Repair’) that Penny quotes throughout the series and its theme is key to the narrative. Poetry is a motif of the series and she also drew from the works of Margaret Atwood, Stevie Shaves and others – including the haunting lyrics of Leonard Cohen.
I realise that I have you almost nothing of the plots – they’re good but secondary to the characters; or of the remote and wonderful village, Three Pines – that is both sanctuary and murder site; or of the bistro run by Olivier and Gabri with the constant supply of wonderful food and drinks that makes me think Penny could have had an alternative career as a food critic. In fact there is so much I can’t possibly convey in this feature that I think I shall simply have to start a new series of reviews and do one book per month.