Simple: It's time to re-read all five earlier volumes. Yes, Louise Penny's fall release, BURY YOUR DEAD, will be best if you've read all the others first. That includes the relatively slow start to Still Life, and the somewhat quiet beginning of A Fatal Grace, as well as the increasingly powerful The Cruelest Month and A Rule Against Murder.
And if you can't make time to do all that, at least pick up the fifth book, The Brutal Telling. Because BURY YOUR DEAD is part two to that book, and although Penny gives deft recaps periodically in the new book, the flavor is much richer if you read the entire fifth book first. There are crime series where you can pick up the tale at any point; this is not one of them. Personally, I have no regrets about that, because Penny's work has intensified with each new book, unfolding with the inevitability and ache that a truly good storyteller can command.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache runs the homicide division of the Sureté du Québec with firmness, imagination, and a deep humane kindness that creates a nurturing relationship between him and his recruits, like Inspector Beauvoir and Agent Isabelle Lacoste. Readers of the earlier books know that his team has repeatedly worked under great stress -- and with good results -- in the obscure little town of Three Pines, a village that people only seem to find when they truly need its community and its hard-earned comforts. At the end of The Brutal Telling, Gamache and his team left the village after making a painful arrest for murder. (See why you should read that one first?) And at the start of BURY YOUR DEAD, Gamache is attempting to recover from something terrible that happened after leaving Three Pines.
In fact, the events that have devastated Gamache are so awful that they can only be slowly revealed, as Gamache gradually lets himself relive their horror. His hand trembles; he can't sleep at night; his dog and his old mentor Emile Comeau, each trying to warm Gamache in the subzero frigidity of Quebec City, fall short of what's needed to bring the Chief Inspector out of his self-doubt and despair.
But now it was time to rest from murder. No more killing, no more deaths. Armand had seen too much of that lately. No, better to bury himself in history, in lives long past. An intellectual pursuit, nothing more.Meanwhile, what about that team of his? Must they return to the failures of their bitter departure from Three Pines, as well as managing without Armand Gamache's leadership? Sorrow and shame wrap them all.
The pain has even extended to the Three Pines poet Ruth and her pet duck.
And there, I'm afraid, I've got to stop: other than to say that Gamache will become entangled in the search for the burial place of Samuel de Champlain, as well as unending conflicts between those of French and of English origin; that Three Pines may teach his team better in the Chief Inspector's absence; and that all the doubts and cruelties from The Brutal Telling are present here, too -- that's all I can say without spoiling things.
And that's a marvel. How many authors embed in their earliest books the characteristics and twists that will drive the plot in their newest ones? (I am not counting the Harry Potter books here -- which really are volumes of one long saga.) Even John Le Carré with his Smiley trilogy, pitting the shoved-aside espionage leader against the years-long evil of Karla and the Russians, hasn't done what Louise Penny has in this series.
So get out the earlier books, place a pre-order for BURY YOUR DEAD, and know how fortunate you are to live in a time when this kind of writing can come to you. If a person combining the strengths of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Conan Doyle had lived during the most threatening years of this global culture we now endure, she might have finally written something with the deep and disturbing darkness that Louise Penny commands -- with the cost of redemption resolutely figured into the consequences.
[A note about the cover: I've placed the US version here; to see the Canadian/British one, visit Penny's web site.]