Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review of Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

One beautiful Saturday morning in September, Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sûreté and his closest colleague, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are called from Montréal to a hidden island to investigate a murder. The island is home to a massive, stone monastery, built long ago by a small order, the Gilbertines, who fled to Canada to escape the Inquisition. (Much to my surprise, Beauvoir never makes a Monty Python joke about this. Do you suppose French Canadians don't watch Monty Python?)

Just two dozen monks live at the monastery, where they grow vegetables, tend chickens, cook, maintain the buildings and grounds and––most important––worship God. Their days are spent in near-silence, except for the hours they spend in prayer and singing Gregorian chants. All of the Gilbertines have a gift for singing and most were recruited from other religious communities for their singing talent.

Singing brought the monks together, but it also tore them apart. The murdered monk was Frère Mathieu, the prior and choirmaster. His recording of the Gilbertines' chants became a surprise sensation, bringing in much-needed money to the monastery but, with it, attention and demands from the secular world. Mathieu thought the attention was, literally, a Godsend; they could use the public spotlight to benefit the monastery and spread the word of God. But this would require the abolition of their tradition of silence and the loss of their solitary contemplative life on the hidden island. Dom Philippe, the abbot, and Mathieu's closest friend in the monastery, decided that these losses would destroy the Gilbertine order, and he ruled that there would be no further recordings of the chants and no public appearances by the monks. But what started as a difference of opinion between two friends grew to an enmity that split the community.

The crime reminds Gamache of the story of King Henry II and Thomas á Becket. Becket was Henry's Chancellor and, in that role, supported Henry's imposition of taxes on landowners, including the Church. Henry welcomed Becket's nomination to become Archbishop of Canterbury, assuming that his old friend would continue to back Henry's primacy. Instead, a years-long, escalating battle for church/state supremacy began that led to Becket's murder by four of Henry's knights.

Gamache remembers that, shortly before the murder, a frustrated Henry burst out to his men, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" and that it appeared Henry's men took that as a command––or at least a suggestion––to kill Becket. Gamache wonders if something similar happened with the Gilbertines. Did one of the monks on the abbot's side of the schism decide that Frère Mathieu had to be eliminated to save the order?

What Gamache doesn't at first recognize is that there is a parallel to the monastery's schism much closer to home. For several years, there has been a venomous animosity between Gamache and Sylvain Françoeur, the man who is now the Superintendent of the Sûreté. The poison of their relationship has spread within the police force, causing rancor and distrust among colleagues.

Gamache and Beauvoir must stay at the monastery to investigate Frère Mathieu's murder. They fall into the rhythm of life at the monastery. More important than the monks' work is each day's prayer sessions. This is when the mesmerizing sound of the chants fills the chapel and seems to work a physical and emotional change in the listener. The book's descriptions of the chants and their history compelled me to listen to some as I read. (You can do it, too, by going to and searching for the Gregorian Chant music channel.)

In their quiet, deliberate way, Gamache and Beauvoir investigate on their own, without the rest of their team, with no internet access or forensics lab, without their families or any intrusion from the outside world. It's as if they are themselves cloistered monks, which makes it almost a peaceful time––until the investigation takes a turn and the plot's pace accelerates, building to a stormy climax. This intense closing promises much more drama to come in the next book for Gamache, Beauvoir, their colleagues and loved ones.

The Beautiful Mystery will be issued by Minotaur Books on August 28, 2012. Macmillan Audio will publish an audiobook on the same date, read by the incomparable Ralph Cosham. My advice is to clear your calendar, go find the Gregorian Chant channel on Pandora, and settle down to yet another compelling entry in the Armand Gamache series.

About the Armand Gamache series

In the Armand Gamache series, there are Three Pines novels, set in the small Brigadoon-ish village in southern Québec, and those set elsewhere in the province. Author Louise Penny must realize that if she set all of the series' murders in Three Pines, the villagers would flee like something out of a Godzilla movie. But, whether set in Three Pines or elsewhere, all of the books in the series have something in common. Each is set in a small community: from a village (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, The Brutal Telling), to the Anglophone community of Québec City and its Literary and Historical Society (Bury Your Dead), to a remote country resort (A Rule Against Murder), to the circle of Québec's artists, dealers and critics (A Trick of the Light) and, now, a monastery.

There are benefits to a small community, like fellowship and support. But when something changes, that can disturb its equilibrium and cause problems that seem inescapable precisely because of the closed nature of the community. As Gamache notes, "murder happens because something changes." Gamache's job is to figure out what has changed, and which member of the community was so unable to cope with the change that he or she saw murder as a solution. Sure, Gamache and his team use traditional methods of examining physical evidence and alibis, but he believes that the murders he investigates were committed for very human reasons that must be unearthed to solve the crime and begin healing the damage caused to the community by the crime.

Does that sound awfully touchy-feely for a murder mystery series? Well, maybe it is, but one of the things I most appreciate about Louise Penny is her respect for murder; for the horror it visits on the community it touches, the damage it inflicts on the soul of the killer, and the ways the community finds to heal and move on after the wound of the murder. The people and situations she describes seem very real. So real that when I finish one of her books, it's as bittersweet as the end of an annual trip to visit friends, when I savor the pleasure of our time together and feel the pang of knowing that all the seasons will pass before we meet again.

Louise Penny

Notes: I received a free review copy of the book and audiobook. Many of the images in this post are taken from Louise Penny's website.


  1. Great review, Sister. I love Penny's series, and I'm looking forward to spending time with her characters again.

  2. Sister, that attention to the human cost of murder is what makes this series so compelling for me. Thanks for the review - I'm salivating to get my hands on a copy. Penny can't write these quality mysteries fast enough for me.

  3. Great review. I'm looking forward, now, to the end of August. I'm always drawn to the characters philosophical musings just mixed in to interesting stories. Thanks.


  4. Georgette, Peri and Joel,

    I hope you like it as much as I did. But I think the next one is going to be a blockbuster.

    I was reading Louise Penny's latest newsletter and she said someone wrote to her to say she and her husband named their new baby Armand after Armand Gamache. And I thought I was a fan!

  5. Actually, the author does make a reference to Monty Python! When Armand Gamache says something about the Inquisition, Beauvoir says "I didn't expect that," and Gamache answers, "No one does."
    Enjoyed your review!