The Beautiful Mystery. Louise Penny. August 2012. St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. ISBN: 968-0-312-65546-4. Hard cover. $25.99. 373 pages.
Louise Penny’s eighth mystery novel, The Beautiful Mystery, blends many meanings of the word mystery. It is a mystery novel, with a straight-forward plot. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, live for some time in the monastery of St. Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups in order to discover and arrest the monk who killed their choir master, Prior Mathieu.
A second mystery is that surrounding the very ancient Gregorian chants, which were “soothing, contemplative, magnetic,” and were known as “the beautiful mystery.” Monks believed they were “singing the word of God, in the calm, reassuring, hypnotic voice of God.” In the ninth century those ancient plainsong chants were written down in the first form of musical notation: “waves--short, squiggling lines” called neumes. When this monastery released a recording, the Church realized that they were singing that form of ancient plainsong which had gotten lost and corrupted. But these monks lived outside civilization in the wilds of Quebec, not leaving their monastery, except for the abbot, or allowing visitors in, until the murder occurs. So a second mystery is: how did these monks learn that very early plainsong that had been lost for a thousand years?
Gamache and Beauvoir have only begun their careful investigation into the split that had occurred among the monks between those led by the dead prior, who wanted to make a new plainsong recording and lift their vow of silence so the monks could travel and be interviewed, and those monks who wanted to keep the status quo, led by the abbot, when Gamache’s boss, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, arrives by noisy plane and takes over the case. A third mystery: why has the Chief Superintendent come and what is he up to besides trying to upstage and wrest control from Gamache? Gamache and Francoeur are fully aware that they are enemies. Gamache is determined to root out the corruption at the top of the Surete, and Francoeur is determined to destroy Gamache.
Then there is a fourth mystery: the moral struggle in Gamache. He can’t let himself be pulled into the insidious game-playing, the baiting of traps to set off his anger that are Francoeur’s specialty. He can’t give in to his rage. Will he be able to stay calm, sane, in control when threatened in new and devious ways?
Beauvoir has his moral struggle, too. He is only recently recovered from his addiction to the pain medicine he needed after his injury in the raid when so many of Gamache’s team were killed. A fifth mystery: will Beauvoir be able to stay clean as the tension ratchets up? He also hates Francoeur and wants to protect Gamache, who doesn’t want to be protected.
Throughout the book, we, too, contemplate the beauty of the music, and how devoted to it the monks are, its seeming to compensate for all the things in the outside world that they don’t have. The music and their participation in it, the way they are transported and transfixed by the music, apparently satisfies them on both human and spiritual levels. This experience of ecstasy is compared to that of an addict high on his drug of choice. A sixth mystery: how can music be so powerful? How could murder happen in such blessed circumstances?
Not specifically articulated here, but present, is a seventh mystery: is the magnum mysterium a truth that can be known only through divine revelation?
Also implied, as we explore the monastery with Gamache and Beauvoir, is an eighth mystery: the baffling, nearly unknowable reality of human character.
Louise Penny recently won the Anthony award for her 2011 novel, Trick of the Light. She has been, with this new book, number two on the New York Times Best-Selling list; high also on many other lists, including: NPR, Washington Post, Vancouver Sun, Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, Macleans, Publishers’ Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle; Independent Booksellers, USA, Independent Booksellers, Canada.
This novel explores all those mysteries without once being oblivious to all the skepticism and even hostility in our twenty-first century to formal religion, to the Church.
The Church through the ages valued music as way to enchant, enlighten, delight, and reveal truth to the human soul. Penny’s book will remind you of deep truths that often elude us twenty-first century dwellers. Don’t miss it. If you haven’t yet read the first seven novels, do that first. You have a treat in store.
This author, with her first book, Still Life, was rejected over and over by agents, in the U.S., in Canada, in the U.K. She said in her interview [on this blog: see May 29, 2011]: “I was an international failure... If I could have had my manuscript shot into outer space, I’d have been an intergalactic failure. No one wanted it. The objections were three-fold–the ‘traditional mystery’ is passe, the protagonist is too content, not enough people are killed. Never mind the agents and editors who just thought, generally, it stank.”
This last is for you writers who think of giving up! Don’t.