I mentioned a couple of months ago when I was reviewing Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, that I love a mystery set in a closed community. Several people have also recommended Louise Penny’s series of police procedurals set in Canada. So, instead of starting at the beginning of the series (which is what I’d normally do) I thought I’d read The Beautiful Mystery, which is set in a Gilbertine monastery in a remote wilderness.
Sûreté officers Chief Inspector Armand Gamache & Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to the monastery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St Gilbert among the wolves), when the body of the Prior & Choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, is found in the Abbot’s private garden. Frère Mathieu had been killed by a blow from a heavy object & he was curled up, clutching a piece of parchment with Gregorian chant written on it. The abbot, Dom Philippe, & all the monks seem shocked by the murder & almost as horrified by the intrusion of the police into their sanctuary.
The monastery had been hidden, unknown for centuries, until a recording of the monks singing their Gregorian chants, found its way into the outside world & caused a sensation. Since then, the monks had almost been under siege by tourists & the media. It soon becomes obvious that the recording has brought benefits & disadvantages. The money from the recording has paid for geothermal heating & solar power but the intrusion of the outside world & the temptation to leave their enclosed order & go out into the world, giving concerts & interviews, has split the community.
The monks have been divided into Abbot’s men, who don’t want to leave their seclusion & the Prior’s men, who want to take the opportunity to secure the community’s finances & spread the word of God through their music. Gamache & Beauvoir must disentangle the possible motives of these men who follow a vow of silence which makes them extraordinarily observant of each other & of the police. As they get to know the monks – Frère Raymond, who looks after the practicalities of the geothermal plant, Frère Charles, the doctor, Frère Simon, the abbot’s secretary & Frère Luc, the youngest & newest member of the congregation, who is the porter – they also begin to absorb the atmosphere of the monastery & the division of the day into periods of prayer & plainchant signalled by bells.
The arrival of Gamache’s superior officer, Superintendent Francoeur, leads to increased tension as Sûreté departmental politics & old enmities are unleashed. Francoeur & Gamache are bitter enemies & Francoeur is determined to undermine Gamache’s position, both by arriving to oversee the investigation & by playing on Beauvoir’s insecurities. Some months before, Gamache had led a group of his agents into a situation in which several of them were killed & he & Beauvoir were severely injured. Beauvoir became addicted to painkillers & has only recently recovered. Beauvoir has also fallen in love with Gamache’s daughter, Annie, & they’re waiting for the right moment to tell Gamache & his wife.
The Beautiful Mystery is an absorbing mystery. I loved the setting. The monastery in the wilderness is beautifully described. I could see the corridors, the chapel, the gardens & the tiny cells where the monks slept. I also loved all the musical background that informed the plot. The beautiful mystery of the title is the name that was given to the sublime sounds of the Gregorian chants. The monks of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups have taken the art of the chant to sublime heights & I was as enchanted as Gamache by the experience of hearing them, even if it was only in my mind. Gamache is a very sympathetic investigator who obviously cares about his whole team & the integrity of the Sûreté as a whole.
Louise Penny does a great job of filling in new readers who haven’t read the earlier books in the series. I felt I knew exactly what was going on with Gamache & Francoeur, their past relationship & the backstory to the hatred between them as well as the father-son relationship between Gamache & Beauvoir. My only quibble with the book is the length. 500pp is just too long for a police procedural. I can’t think of any mystery novel that needs to be more than 300pp. I stopped reading Elizabeth George because every novel was longer than the last & the investigative element became swamped in the minutiae of the lives of the protagonists. I enjoy following the characters from one novel to the next but sometimes the mystery is lost. However, The Beautiful Mystery is an excellent example of the closed community crime novel & there is much to enjoy in this story of monks, music & murder.