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Disinterring Louise Penny's Bury Your Dead

What are we going to discover — and what are we going to steal?
Disinterring Louise Penny's Bury Your Dead

The thing about Bury Your Dead is that it may only work if you've read all of the previous Three Pines novels. You may still enjoy the story – you might even find it riveting – but the mistake Chief Inspector Gamache makes, at both the beginning and the end of the story, won't land with quite the same impact.

The book probably won't make you cry.

I told you, the other day, that there had only been two other books that had made me cry. The first was The Amber Spyglass, which is to say it was the last book in the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy, and the ending worked because it was the opposite of what the reader wanted but – and simultaneously – what both the reader and the characters understood was the inevitable conclusion. I cried because I hoped to be brave enough to make a similar choice, if it ever presented itself. I cried because I feared I would not. I cried because I was about to separate myself from someone, for different and more quotidian reasons, and knew I was not handling it with anything like Lyra or Will's grace.

The second was Louisa May Alcott's Little Men, and this time I cried because the death of John Brooke was too much like the deaths of people I had known – unexpected, too soon, tragic not by its circumstance but by the way in which it immediately created an absence.

(My mother will tell you that I also cried after reading C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, and she would be correct – but those tears were not of grief, but of terror. The sudden understanding that anything that happened after death would be by default infinite, whether it were oblivion, everlasting life, or a series of reincarnations.)

When I began rereading Bury Your Dead, in an attempt to understand both how and why it worked, I realized that this book employed the same technique used in the last two novels I studied:

  • Opening with the threat.
  • Letting the reader know, from the very first page, what problem this book is going to solve.
  • Letting the reader know, from the very first page, how human error will impact the rest of the narrative.

In this case, the reader does not understand Gamache's error until the very end – and that, of course, is when I started crying – but it's all there, in the text, from the very beginning:

Up the stairs they raced, taking them two at a time, trying to be as quiet as possible. Gamache struggled to keep his breathing steady, as though he was sitting at home, as though he had not a care in the world.
"Sir?" came the young voice over Gamache's headphones.
"You must believe me, son. Nothing bad will happen to you."
He hoped the young agent couldn't hear the strain in his voice, the flattening as the Chief Inspector fought to keep his voice authoritative, certain.
"I believe you."
They reached the landing. Inspector Beauvoir stopped, staring at his Chief. Gamache looked at his watch.
47 seconds.
Still time.
In his headphones the agent was telling him about the sunshine and how good it felt on his face.
The rest of the team made the landing, tactical vests in place, automatic weapons drawn, eyes sharp. Trained on the Chief. Beside him Inspector Beauvoir was also waiting for a decision. Which way? They were close. Within feet of their quarry.
Gamache stared down one dark, dingy corridor in the abandoned factory then down the other.
They looked identical. Light scraped through the broken, grubby windows lining the halls and with it came the December day.
43 seconds.
He pointed decisively to the left and they ran, silently, toward the door at the end. As he ran Gamache gripped his rifle and spoke calmly into the headset.
"There's no need to worry."
"There's forty seconds left, sir." Each word was exhaled as though the man on the other end was having difficulty breathing.
"Just listen to me," said Gamache, thrusting his hand toward a door. The team surged ahead.
36 seconds.
"I won't let anything happen to you," said Gamache, his voice convincing, commanding, daring the young agent to contradict. "You'll be having dinner with your family tonight."
"Yes sir."
The tactical team surrounded the closed door with its frosted, filthy window. Darkened.
Gamache paused, staring at it, his hand hanging in the air ready to give the signal to break it down. To rescue his agent.
29 seconds.
Beside him Beauvoir strained, waiting to be loosed.
Too late, Chief Inspector Gamache realized he'd made a mistake.

After understanding what Louise Penny had done – and suspecting both why it had worked and, more specifically, why it had worked on me – it occurred to me that I ought to compare the first few paragraphs of Bury Your Dead to the paragraphs that opened the preceding installments of the Three Pines series.

How do those openings differ, and how does each succession of paragraphs affect everything that comes afterwards?

We'll start there tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, you can ask yourself why I cried over Chief Inspector Gamache's mistake – the answer, if you need a hint, has to do with what I need out of these particular books, at this particular time in my life – and whether you need to follow a character over multiple installments of an extended story, as I had followed Gamache and Will and Lyra and the Pevensies and the March sisters, before you have enough emotional and mental investment in their lives to treat the rise and fall of their actions as a reflection on your own.