Monday, August 27, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

A year ago, I reviewed Louise Penny's A Trick of the Light, a masterpiece in which she explored the dichotomy of the soul using art, talking about the dark and the light. Penny isn't finished with her exploration of life and the soul. This time, in The Beautiful Mystery, she examines music as she takes readers into an isolated monastery in Québec for a story about balance and reflection, another story about evil and good, a story of the soul. Read this book very carefully. Pour over the words of this magnificent novel. Penny leaves hints throughout this book, a story that soars to the highest heights of passion, and takes the readers to the greatest pain, the pain of betrayal.

Time and again, I've refused to do more than a simple summary of Louise Penny's books. To fully appreciate The Beautiful Mystery, a reader has to have read the earlier books, the ones that lead up to the pain of this story. I can only summarize the basic plot, and hope that readers will care enough to start at the beginning, and follow the story of Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of homicide with the Sûreté de Québec. 

When Gamache and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir enter the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, they are the first nonreligous men to enter the monastery where two dozen cloistered, contemplative monks live. But, they were called to the monastery because one of those monks was murdered. Only twenty-four men were in there, and the abbot knew that one of the remaining twenty-three was a killer.

Gamache anticipated his visit, not as an investigator, but as a man who had listened to the glorious Gregorian chants on a simple recording by this small handful of monks. He finds their music so glorious that it speaks of God, chants that were so soothing and magnetic that they were called "the beautiful mystery", as the monks sang the word of God. At the same time, he felt disharmony, and could see that battle lines had been drawn between the monks that supported the abbot, and the monks that supported the dead monk. And, somewhere in that disharmony was the answer. Who could kill the person he lived with, sang with, ate with, and depended on in that remote monastery? Gamache is very much aware that the state of the monastery itself could reflect the state of a man's soul, "The public face, and then the crumbling, rotting one behind."

Once again, Penny works with a story within a story. Gamache is not just a homicide investigator. He himself is part of a larger force, the Sûreté de Québec. And, the past history of corruption and tragedy in the Sûreté has always been a crucial part of this series, as the wise, caring Gamache is contrasted with some of the other officers. And, as much as Gamache and the monks of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups may seek harmony and peace, the outside world has a way of interfering. Time and again, Gamache quotes T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. "Some malady is coming upon us."

Pay very close attention to Louise Penny's story, the symbolism, the allegories. While Penny writes of a murder investigation, she writes of life itself. And, one man, Frère Charles, the medical doctor, has a deep understanding of life and men. One conversation between Gamache and Frère Charles is particularly noteworthy. The doctor says, "There isn't a man in this monastery who didn't come through that door wounded. Damaged. Almost dead inside." It's a comment that means more than just the monks. And, he says, "People die in bits and pieces....They lose heart. They lose hope. They lose faith. They lose interest. And finally, they lose themselves."

There's so much more I could say about this outstanding novel. At one point the comment is made, "Most murders take years to happen. But finally something, or someone, tips the balance." Louise Penny's books are about dichotomy, about balance in life. And, her story lines carry from one book to the next, as the balance is found, and lost again. It sounds redundant to call The Beautiful Mystery beautiful. But, it's beautiful, and thought-provoking, and painful. It's filled with echoes, light and darkness, and, as always, good and evil. And, it's filled with parallel moments and terrible contrasts, as well as tragic memories. Penny allows one foreboding statement to hang over the entire book, Matthew 10:36. "And a man's foes shall be of his own household." Read this book carefully. Pay very close attention to The Beautiful Mystery.

The Beautiful Mystery is also available from Macmillan audio. Here's a link if you'd like to listen to a clip.

Visit Louise Penny on Facebook, at or at

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 2012. ISBN 9780312655464 (hardcover), 373p.

Or from Macmillan audio.  9781427226099  (unabridged)

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.


BPL Ref said...

I'm glad that you added that the books should be read in order. Loathe as I am to disagree with the author, I followed her advice on her website and told a patron she could start reading the series in any order because Penny had said each book was a standalone in many ways. I was rather surprised when the patron came back and said she didn't like the series-- I'd heard such good things about it. Now that I'm reading them myself I can't help but wonder if she picked up either Bury Your Dead or The Cruelest Month, because both those books depend in large part on what has gone before. I too now believe it's very important to read this series in order.

Lesa said...

I know Louise says that, but I find there is too much reference to earlier books, and an ongoing storyline for this series to work out of order. But, that's my opinion, not the author's.

Nancy said...

Thanks, Lesa, for the advice on reading this book. I've read and listened to them all and am a huge fan of Louise's. Matter of fact, I keep checking my Kindle library to see if maybe Amazon will deliver prior to midnight! (Which I know they won't.). I look forward to each posting of your blog to learn of mystery writers I would likely miss. Thanks!

donna said...

Hi Lesa - I'm on vacation this week so just had a chance to check in. Glad you took my suggestion and hope you enjoyed your Sunday "catch up" day. I spent Sunday at the beach reading Storm of Swords (book 3 of Game of Thrones). I too can't wait to read Louise's book. I met her in CT right after her third book came out and have been an avid fan plus she is such a sincere and lovely person. It is nice to see success come to good people.
Donna from CT

Lesa said...

Tonight! It should be there after midnight tonight, Nancy, and you're going to love it! Thank you so much for the nice comment saying you look forward to the postings!

Lesa said...

Great suggestion, Donna! And, my mother thought it was a good idea, too.

Isn't Louise Penny the nicest person? And, you're right. She's so sincere. I'm so glad you had the chance to meet her. I'll see her next Monday here in Scottsdale.

Jane R said...

I started this series a few years ago and really enjoyed it. The writing and the characters are outstanding. Then, somehow, I got distracted. I have read so many good things about her latest book that I think I will start from the beginning, so I can become reacquainted with Armand Gamache. Thanks for the wonderful review!

Lesa said...

Oh, you're so welcome, Jane. And, you can't read this one without having read the previous book, so it makes perfect sense to go back again. Enjoy!

Laurie C said...

Just found your blog because I was writing my review of the audio edition of The Beautiful Mystery (excellent, as always!) and am looking for other reviews of the audiobook to link to. I also recommend that readers start with Still Life and move forward from there. Some readers don't seem to mind starting in the middle, but I agree that these definitely have plots that build over the course of all the books.

Unknown said...

Loving this series and am glad I noticed it was a series and started with book one. I am to begin eight and was glad to see your review. I have also enjoy you tube interviews with Louise Penny although I couldn't find one for this one. Having lived in northern Vermont for three years I felt right at home with the scenery and weather and the Canadian French tidbits of language expression. I am also very involved with metaphysics and enjoy her way of bringing it in and wonder where she found that. At any rate thanks for your delightful review. As for Louise Iam in love with her. :-)

Lesa said...

You are so right, Laurie. This is one series that should be read in order. You do follow her website and blog, don't you?

Lesa said...

Welcome! I'm glad you found my blog, and I hope you've also discovered Louise's blog. She writes that beautifully as well.