Review: The Beautiful Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #8), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013.

Summary: While solving a case involving the murder of a prior in a remote monastery, Gamache must confront his arch-nemesis Chief Superintendent Sylvain Françoeur.

Things must be quiet in Three Pines. No murders there to solve. Instead, Gamache and Beauvoir are sent to a remote monastery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, of an order, The Gilbertines, thought to have died out. St. Gilbert’s distinction was his loyalty for Thomas à Becket. In consequence, the Gilbertines were chased across Europe, and a group, disguised as workers, find their way to a remote part of Canada, surviving for four centuries.

Two dozen monks led by an Abbot and a Prior who is also their choir director maintain a self-sustaining community and come together to sing the most beautiful Gregorian chant heard anywhere in the world. Gamache knows. He has heard the one recording of their chants that took the world by storm.

And now the Prior is dead, murdered by blows to the head, curled in a ball by the wall of the Abbot’s garden. It can be accessed only through a bookcase in the Abbot’s office. The only ones who typically do so are the Abbot, the Prior, and the Abbot’s secretary, Brother Simon, who had found the Prior.

Concealed in the Prior’s sleeves was a piece of parchment with musical notation in the character of chant, but unlike any chant, and with non-sensical words. What did all this mean? And how was it connected to the Prior’s death. And who of the other twenty-three brothers, seemingly one in song and community, did this? And what is the source of the particular beauty of the singing of these brothers, the beautiful mystery?

Gamache and Beauvoir set out to unravel all this in their patient, methodical fashion. They discover a deeply divided community, reflecting a divide between the Abbot and Prior, once the deepest of friends. The Prior wants to make another recording, and for the monks to be permitted to break their vow of silence to tour. The Abbot refuses even though a number of the monks oppose him. Even though one of them has shown him that the foundations of the monastery are crumbling and may not last another ten years. Another recording could save the building. But the Abbot fears it could destroy the order.

Amid the efforts to solve the murder, the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté, Sylvain Françoeur, arrives, ostensibly to take over the investigation. He has it in for Gamache, and has come to attack Gamache and Beauvoir at the points of their vulnerabilities. In Françoeur, Penny has created a formidable and subtle villain, one we love to hate.

Some of the promotional copy speaks of “the divine, the human, and the cracks in between” and this is indeed a theme running through this mystery. The transcendent beauty of the chants, even with a killer among them, captivates Gamache. These monks believe what they sing, have come to this place to sing what they believe. Yet they are human. Twenty-three distinct men. The cracks between have riven their community, in as great a danger as the walls of their monastery. But amid the noble work of the Sûreté to execute justice, there are cracks as well. Obviously between Gamache and Françoeur, but also between Gamache and Beauvoir, stemming from the ambush attack and the traumas that have never healed. There are the cracks within as well.

There is also a crack between faith and secularity. The tension between faithfulness to God and the vows of the order and the pull of secular fame and the money it could bring is one crack. There is also a contrast between the faith of the monks and the officers of the Sûreté who all have walked away from the church. The tension is greatest in Gamache, who prayed the last rites over his fallen officers amid a gun battle, who is captivated by the chants, and yet…. In the last words of dialogue, Gamache is asked, “Would you like me to hear your confession?” to which he replies, “Not just yet, I think, mon pere.” I’m intrigued with what Penny will do with this.

One thought on “Review: The Beautiful Mystery

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2021 | Bob on Books

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