The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is the eighth book in the Chief Inspector Gamache series (available August 28, 2012).
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m mad for Louise Penny’s novels. I haven’t been so excited for a writer’s new releases since the ’80s when a certain horror writer was putting out at least two books a year. Penny is less prolific, but that makes her novels all the sweeter to anticipate.
The true object of my obsession—I mean, my affection—is Penny’s creation, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is a fifty-something genius at solving murders with the help of his devoted partner, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and the rest of his very loyal, if flawed, team. In addition to being wise, brave, and intelligent, Gamache is brilliant at picking out diamond-in-the-rough outcasts whom he then carefully teaches and trains. Penny’s talent for reaching deep into the psyche of even the least significant of her characters is what wins her so many literary awards, and keeps her at the top of her readers’ must-read lists.
While the majority of the Gamache novels take place in the quaint Québec village of Three Pines (founded by loyalists after the American Revolution), The Beautiful Mystery is set in remotest Canada, in a secluded monastery. The cloister at the mysteriously named Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St. Gilbert Among the Wolves) is a community of monks recruited primarily for their singing voices and for whatever worldly skills they have that will help the community survive—animal husbandry, construction and maintenance, cooking, etc. Forgotten for hundreds of years, the Gilbertines are now world famous for a single recording of the beautiful, ancient chants at the center of their worship. But sudden fame has brought dissension into their ranks, and Gamache is sent to the monastery to investigate the murder of the charismatic prior who was the force behind their best-selling recording.
Taking Gamache out of the very familiar Three Pines and other, more urban settings is a big risk. A cloistered monastery is the novelistic equivalent of a locked room—at least a room that has all its suspects locked inside. And Gamache declares to the abbot that he will not leave the monastery until he calls out the murderer.
The monks looked anxious. And angry. At him.
Gamache was used to this transference. They couldn’t yet blame the killer, so they blamed the police for turning their lives upside down. He felt a rush of sympathy.
If they only knew how bad it would get.
Gamache and Beauvoir search the monastery for physical clues, but the hardest work to be done is the interviewing, the constant hammering out of the truth betrayed by glances, small gestures, the fleeting look in a suspect’s eyes.
The Beautiful Mystery is tense in ways that Penny’s other novels are not. It’s a tightly woven web, and the story movement is subtle. Dialogue is critical. The reader gets the sense that he or she has all the same information that Gamache and Beauvoir have, that they are unravelling the mystery together. Because the setting is almost claustrophobic, there’s little room for dramatic physical action. Penny’s skills as a student of plot as well as psychology are beautifully on display.
I almost wish that this were my first Gamache mystery. Apart from Penny’s first novel, Still Life, it’s a perfect, elegant introduction to Gamache as both a character and an investigator. While Gamache’s considerable troubles with his superiors (literally) follow him to the monastery, knowing the backstory is not critical at all to enjoying the book. But I would definitely go back to the beginning of the series afterward to know absolutely everything I could about Penny’s marvelous fictional universe.
I wish I could share this novel’s astonishing ending with you. There are so many mysteries, so many secrets revealed in The Beautiful Mystery—all stunning and heartbreaking. Have I mentioned how wild I am about this series? This book? You will be, too. I promise.
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Laura Benedict’s latest thriller is Devil’s Oven, a Gothic tale of suspense. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Noir at the Bar, and a number of other anthologies. She lives in the southernmost wilds of a midwestern state, where she is surrounded by coyotes, bobcats, and many other less picturesque predators. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com to get to know her better.
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