Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery Book Cover The Beautiful Mystery [2012] – ★★★★ 

Louise Penny is an award-winning Canadian author and this is her eight Inspector Gamache detective mystery. The book is about a murder that happened in a mysterious 400 year old monastery somewhere in the northern Quebec. Twenty-three devoted-to-music monks are grieving for their murdered music director who was killed in the most merciless way. Inspector Gamache and his second-in-command Beauvoir are called to investigate and instantly become enchanted by the divine ancient chants of the eccentric and reclusive monks. But, who killed Frère Mathieu and for what purpose? Clues have been left behind, and, as the investigation slowly moves forward, Gamache realises that he has to first solve one ancient mystery of religious music before he gets to the identity of the murderer. It is so hard nowadays to find a quality detective novel and this book ticks almost all the boxes for me. In The Beautiful Mystery, there is one single eerie location setting, a focus on internal thinking/motivations of the characters, including their dynamics, and an unusual element, since the emphasis is also on mysterious ancient music. The Beautiful Mystery may suffer from having two narratives (a murder investigation and a previous case discussion), which run uncomfortably side by side, and the result is not altogether unpredictable. However, the book is still suspenseful (maybe too suspenseful), and the location and music described are just too beautiful and intriguing not to be impressed. In that way, an attempt to fuse beauty and darkness is the forte of this book. 

I enjoyed The Beautiful Mystery in the same way I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939] or Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island [2003]. In these books there is one single eerie location from which it is difficult to get out (it is equally difficult to get in). Also, there are few suspects when something terrible happened in that location. In The Beautiful Mystery, there is at the centre a mythical monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups or St Gilbert among the Wolves, a forgotten place in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by water. It is a place of both austerity and beauty, where eccentric monks go through their daily tasks with perplexing devotion and enthusiasm. When the murder of Mathieu happened, and Inspector Gamache and Beauvoir gain entrance to the monastery, we discover with them that the monks have rather surprising activities at the monastery, including making chocolate and rearing rare breeds of hens. Together with the investigators, we also get to know the history of the monastery, the symbolism of the place and how it became known for its divine chants. The beautiful design of the building, with natural beauty around, a secret garden inside and a number of hidden doors, may camouflage a certain type of darkness permeating from the inside, since at least one the monks turned out to be a murderer: “that’s what the abbey of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups felt like. A place of distortion and even deprivation. Of great silence and greater darkness. Where whispers became shouts. Where monks murdered, and the natural world was locked out, as though it was at fault” [Penny, 2012: 143]. 

The investigation narrative itself progresses further slowly and Penny painstakingly sets out the hourly and even minute activities and wonderings of her characters throughout the monastery. Inspector Gamache finds out that the murdered monk was very popular and a genius in music. He died clutching one piece of paper with nonsensical meaning inside, which leads Gamache to presume that music is somehow connected to the murder. Gamache and Beauvoir then notice certain organisational and political divisions among the monks in the monastery, and introductions are made to other monks who all become suspects, including Abbot Dom Philippe, his secretary Frère Simon, newcomer Frère Luc, confrontational Frère Antoine and Frère Charles, a doctor, among others. As the investigation continues, one theory after another is taken and pondered upon, and this can last chapters. The pace may be unhurried but there are things here to observe and contemplate, including the interesting psychology of the monks, their curious relationships with each other, and of course, the meaning of music. Like Robert Langdon from Dan Brown mysteries, Inspector Gamache may be on the path to discover something symbolically profound, and this time in relation to the origin of written music. Louise Penny’s passion for transformative music is evident, she describes “The first chants were soothing, contemplative, magneticThey had such a profound effect on those who sang and heard them that the ancient chants became known as “the beautiful mystery”. The monks believed they were singing the word of God, in the calm, reassuring, hypnotic voice of God” [Penny, 2012: 2].   

The negative aspect of this book is that, when we are comfortably settled into the eerie mystery of the murder and its investigation, there is another narrative thrown into the story which relates to Gamache’s previous case. Sylvain Francoeur, Chief Superintendent and Gamache’s boss and nemesis, arrives to the scene. It is then a bit confusing and almost uninteresting in comparison to follow this new narrative of Francoeur’s contempt for and mental battle with Gamache when we have just been in the middle of uncovering a fascinating murder mystery. The dynamics in Gamache’s police force then start to reflect the state of affairs and politics in the monastery. Another surprising element to this story is the odd and uncomfortable place of women in it. They play a role of love interests to the two leading man. However, apart from underling the idea that Gamache and Beauvoir are family men who now share different love of one woman (the daughter of Gamache dates Beauvoir), the ladies are needless to tell the story and, as the book shows, there is no suspense associated with them.

The Beautiful Mystery is a psychologically acute murder-mystery with slow-burning tension. It also has a very strong sense of place. The monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups and all the Gregorian chants leave a deep impression, even if the murder investigation is not exactly the one that Sherlock Holmes would be proud of. 

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16 thoughts on “Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

      1. I was thinking while reading your review that for readers of the series the second storyline might not have been so distracting because it’s an overarching theme throughout the series. I’ve read them all and some are stronger than others ….a couple of my favorites are How The Light Gets In and Kingdom of the Blind…..two of my least favs are #2 and #3. However I’m hooked on the series and love Gamache! 😂

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        1. Yes, exactly, that is why I was a bit confused and did not particularly like the story about Francoeur – I was new to the series. Having said that, I also believe that the author should be mindful that a person could pick up any book in the series and make it their first and any book in the series should be appealing both to new and old readers. I am now looking forward to reading How The Light Gets In, too, since I have not yet read a mystery set in the village of Three Pines, so thanks for your recommendation! Gamache can prove to be addictive 🙂

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          1. The books can be read for the most part as stand alones but a reader would miss the context of Gamache’s ongoing fight against corruption and also miss the delightful character development and deepening relationships. Did you know that Penny based Gamache on her husband because she knew she’d be spending lots of time with Gamache and created a character she’d like to marry! Her beloved husband died last year.

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        2. Ok……Diana……I have a MAJOR edit to my above comment! Two of my favs are How the Light Gets In and Glass Houses (NOT Kingdom of the Blind….that’s the most recent and I guess it was on my mind)…..sorry for the confusion and I hope I didn’t mislead anyone 😱

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  1. I’m glad to see such a positive review especially for an author who has a series I’ve seen but haven’t read. Tbh, I picked up the first one in the series after reading the synopsis and to find out my favorite narrator read that one. Well of course I’m going to read it.

    I enjoy books especially mystery/suspense that have a strong sense of an atmospheric setting to really build some tension as the book progesses.

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wanted to read “Still Life” too immediately after finishing “The Beautiful Mystery”, but then “The Long Way Home” (no 11) and “Glass Houses” (no 13) tempted me even more. So much choice, so little time. I would be interested in your verdict on the first book.

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  2. lovely, so glad you are reading this series. I really enjoyed this one, the only one actually in the series so far not set in Three Pines. I recently visited the Benedictine monastery in the Eastern townships she used as some background.

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