May 2013 Review: The Beautiful Mystery, a novel by Louise Penny

~by Michele Gregoire

Normally the genres of books I review are nonfiction memoirs, inspirational, or help books relating to animals in our lives, and certainly there is a multitude of such published books. However, I am for the second month in a row devoting this review to another work of fiction, a novel by the Canadian writer Louise Penny. Ms. Penny had a career in journalism before becoming a full time fiction writer in the mystery genre and has had quite a successful series with her character, Chief Inspector Gamache of Montreal. I had never read any of her works before but found The Beautiful Mystery, recommended by my sister, to resonate with my Catholicism, educational background (music), and fiction reading interest (mysteries). The other element that captured me immediately is the setting of a remote monastery and its characters, twenty four cloistered monks who have a vow of silence yet sing with unbelievable beauty the ancient Gregorian chants. Penny created a compelling story amidst the backdrop of an obscure and isolated monastery with a singular focus on Gregorian chant. Tension and resolve in the story are largely the result of the meeting of worldliness – the secular and profane – with the holy – the consecrated life, both among the meeting of the constituents of each, as well as within each character’s person. The tension is both subtle and overt, providing a continuum of balance between these two poles of the story and within the individual main characters.

Inspector Gamache and his second in command are the primary secular characters and half a dozen monks could be considered the sacred main characters in the novel. Without giving away too much of the plot and the resolution, here is a synopsis of the tale. The choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, had been murdered in the Abbot’s garden and Chief Inspector Gamache and his second in command Jean-Guy Beauvoir have been called to the scene. It takes some doing to arrive at the secluded and isolated monastery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St. Gilbert among the Wolves), that lies deep in the woods on a lake in the wilds of Quebec. (The story of St. Gilbert also becomes a minor part of the investigation as the inspectors try to get a full understanding of this monastic order.) Once there they begin the investigation, which is punctuated regularly with the Divine Office entirely sung by the monks. Gamache loves the singing and listened to the recording these very monks had made en route to the monastery, at which they arrived by boat after driving to the closest town. Of the main secular characters, Gamache is more reverent and appreciative of the divine while Beauvoir is completely worldly and seems to have no place for religion in his life although he is completely taken by the singing and finds it to be of great and indescribable beauty. One of the first discoveries they make is that there is a rift within the monastery between the monks who want to make more recordings so they can create greater income to fix the monastery building, and those who believe that is the wrong direction and choose to follow more closely the order’s rule and use prayer to provide for their needs. Not surprisingly, the faction that wished to remain true to the order was in support of the Abbot while those seeing further recordings as the answer to prayer followed the choirmaster. So this sets up possible motive for the murder. One of the unfortunate truths that Penny brings out in her characters is the ability for anyone to kill another if the motivation is sufficient or the rage is too consuming, even with consecrated religious.

Because this is a series, previous events are brought into the story to explain some of the main characters’ weaknesses and drives. The reader discovers that both inspectors have had some very challenging injuries and experiences that inform some of their actions in this novel. In the middle of their investigation at the monastery the Chief of the Sûreté du Québec flies in by helicopter and instigates an additional level of stress to the proceedings of the police work, especially in his negative relationship with Gamache and his manipulation of Beauvoir. This contrasts with the flow of monastic life around the prayers of the Divine Office. Among the special treats for Catholics in this book are the quoting of such mystics as Julian of Norwich (e.g., “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”), the monks’ praying of the Hail Mary, descriptions of life in a monastery, and the imagery of their singing of the chants. Secondarily there is the suggestion of perhaps an emerging, or perhaps reemerging, religious conscience and practice with Chief Inspector Gamache.

The other “main character” in this story is Gregorian chant itself, its history, and the search for its true source. In this book, chant is a major player. On the first page of Chapter 9 the following quote gives perspective on these cloistered monks whose entire lives are devoted to Gregorian chant. “This was the world-famous choir of the abbey of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, singing their prayers. Singing Gregorian chants. While it was a sound millions had heard, it was a sight few had ever witnessed. Indeed, as far as the Chief Inspector knew, this was unique. He was the first person to ever actually see the monks in their chapel singing.” Elsewhere in the book on more than one occasion the monks’ singing is described as singing the language of God with the voice of God. It is indescribably beautiful unlike any voices the outsiders had ever heard and it takes them to another mind space of entranced relaxation.

Louise Penny has written a respectful rendition of Catholic monastic practice and the faith itself as part of the setting and character of her novel, The Beautiful Mystery. She chose to write this book because of her own fascination with music, and her own “very personal and baffling relationship with it.” Penny writes in her acknowledgments that her works are inspired by music and that it has a “near magical effect on my creative process.” Listening to music allows her to see scenes from the book she is about to write. In preparation for this novel she conducted abundant research, read about the effects of music on the brain from expert sources, considered real life experiences, and spent time at a monastery. All this to help her understand the power of ancient chants on those who sing them as well as those who hear them. This preparation served her well in the finely constructed novel, The Beautiful Mystery – a book well worth reading.

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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