The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part I) – Chief Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete are called to a remote monastery in Quebec to investigate the murder of Frere Mathieu, a world authority on Gregorian chants.
The title comes from Gregorian plain chants. Because people have long been moved by hearing the Psalms sung in plain chants they have become known as the “beautiful mystery”. The chants were sung by generations of monks without the notations of modern music. Eventually small marks, neumes, were used to inform monks on how to sing higher and lower and to hold the chants. Research in the past two centuries of early Gregorian chants has partially restored the original chants. Yet the neumes do not show the starting point for singing chants. The search has continued to find in writing a notation that would show that starting point.
It is a book I enjoyed but I have some significant issues with parts of the book. As I think the issues may be in the nature of spoilers for some readers I am putting those concerns in my next post on Fridy.
In this post I will talk about what I liked about the book.
I admired Penny’s willingness to venture away from Three Pines. It is the first book in the series to have no connections to Three Pines. While I love that mythical village it was interesting to see Penny place Gamache in a setting outside Three Pines.
It is clear Frere Mathieu must have been murdered by one of his fellow 23 monks. No one else was in the monastery.
Dom Philippe lifts their Rule of Silence and encourages the monks to answer the questions of the investigators. It takes time for Gamache and Beauvoir to learn what to ask of the monks. The monastery is a foreign place for the two non-religious men.
They soon realize that in such a closed quiet community slight gestures take on great meaning. They are disconcerted that the monks can read their thoughts through their expressions and body language.
It is an irony of a monastery of silence that the monks sing each day to the glory of God. While Gamache loves the chants Beauvoir finds them dull and boring.
Penny does a good job of developing how difficult it can be to live in a communal life even for men who have devoted their lives to God.
For investigators accustomed to the traditional motives of the secular world they must adjust their thoughts to dealing with men for whom personal possessions have no consequence. Still the monks, despite their focus on God, have personal failings and strong emotions.
Penny creates interesting monks. While each is a skilled singer each has other skills needed for the functioning of a self-contained community.
At the heart of the story is music as art was at the core of the previous book, A Trick of the Light. Amidst the glorious sounds of the chants there is disharmony amongst the monks. Gradually Gamache and Beauvoir determine a great division had settled upon the monastery that provoked huge emotions in the monks and ended in murder.
As indicated at the start of the post there were aspects of this book I disliked as much as I liked. Those issues will be set out in Friday’s post.