The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is definitely that, a beautiful mystery. But that’s not all it is.
The Beautiful Mystery is the eighth book in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series, after A Trick of the Light (see review). Instead of returning to the small village of Three Pines, where the body count is getting inconceivably high, Penny sends Gamache, the head of the Homicide Division of the Sûreté du Québec, to the remote monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups to solve, of course, a murder.
But not just any murder. This case is a sort of locked-room murder writ large. Saint-Gilbert can only be reached by boat, and there are only 24 monks in this cloistered order. 23 suspects and a corpse.
But the monks of Saint-Gilbert released a bit of themselves out into the world they left behind. One glorious CD full of Gregorian chant. The beautiful mystery of a plainchant so harmonious, so beautiful, that a world starving for the peace the monks captured in that incredible music stormed their remote sanctuary. A sanctuary that had remained hidden for four centuries.
The CD brought the funds that the monks needed to repair the monastery. The roof, the walls, the electricity. Québec winters are brutal. Even the best masonry wears out eventually. But in selling their music, they sold their peace.
The loss of that peace exposed critical differences within the community. When all they had was each other, all alone in the wilderness, the differences didn’t matter. But when the debate was between bringing their message, their music, to the wider world, and returning to their isolation, those differences became a chasm, a schism.
A reason to kill.
Murder in the remotest parts of the province might not bring the Chief Inspector and his best detective, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Except, except, that chant, that beautiful mystery of music made the monastery, and the victim, famous. This is a high-profile case.
The victim was the choir director, the man responsible for the music. He represented one side of that terrible divide in the monastery. Now he was dead. It is up to Gamache and Beauvoir to determine which of the remaining 23 monks committed the murder.
Into the middle of the case drops Sylvain Françoeur, the Chief of the Sûreté. Gamache’s. Françoeur is not there to help with the case. He is there because of the schism within the Surete, a chasm where Françoeur stands on one side, and Gamache on the other.
Françoeur is part of the rot within the Sûreté. An insidious evil that Gamache has been fighting for many years. Françoeur and Gamache are old enemies, and know each other all too well. And Françoeur, snake that he is, knows where Gamache’s weak spots are.
Gamache’s strengths, and his weak points, are the Surete agents he has trained, particularly the ones he loves as much as his own children. Agents like Jean-Guy Beauvoir.
Escape Rating A+: The Inspector Gamache series, starting with Still Life, is definitely a mystery series. There is always a body. But they are also complex character studies. Gamache, Jean-Guy, often the people of Three Pines, the monks in this case, Françoeur.
Gamache studies people, and it’s from that study he figures out who committed the murder. Jean-Guy is usually the evidence guy. Or Isabelle Lacoste, who isn’t in this one. Gamache is also a terrific mentor.
But there’s an over-arching story in The Beautiful Mystery, in addition to the mystery of the dead monk. It’s the story of the rot in the Surete. The case in the immediate past is the one detailed in Bury Your Dead, but there’s old history between Gamache and Francoeur. It’s that old history that’s coming to a head, and Jean-Guy is caught in the middle.
There’s a part of me that is starting to wonder if the overall arch isn’t so much Gamache’s story as it is Jean-Guy’s journey. If so, The Beautiful Mystery is the point in the hero’s journey where everything looks really, really bleak.
The murder is solved. But not the mystery.