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First, but not the last...
on June 27, 2012
"The Beautiful Mystery" by Louise Penny is Penny's first book I've read, but it surely won't be the last. It is one of the best written, almost lyrical stories I've read in a long time. Yes, "The Beautiful Mystery" is part of a series of seven previous books starring Armand Gamache, but the book is an excellent novel that transcends its "police procedural" designation and becomes simply a beautifully written novel.
Set in Montreal, Surete Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is sent, along with his aide, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to a monastery hidden away in the hills and forests well outside the city. A monk has been found murdered in the garden and the head of the monastery - Dom Philippe - has reluctantly sent for the Surete to investigate the murder. But this is no ordinary monastery; the 24 monks living within have taken vows of silence and express their religion through their beautiful Gregorian chants. They had recorded their chants on a CD from which they hoped to earn a modest amount of money to fix up their dilapidated building. The order - the Gilbertines - was actually a renegade religious order who had fled England for Canada 400 years before. (The reader can learn an awful lot of history by reading this book.) But the CD of chants had struck a chord outside the monastery walls and had become a world-wide best-seller. Suddenly a previously obscure bunch of monks were famous for their singing and money, a by-product of their success, had become an issue in the congregation. There was division as the leaders couldn't decide whether or not to seize their success and record another CD of beautiful, spectral music.
But if the Gilbertine monks were caught up in power struggles, so were the members of the Surete sent to work the case. Louise Penny updates the feuds and battles within the upper ranks of the police organisation she had previously written about in her series. For someone like me, who hadn't read the previous novels, Penny was able to strike the right note of filling in the back story without boring those who already knew what had come before.
Penny's novel becomes almost like the beautiful and heavenly Gregorian chants as she combines different plot points and characters to tell a nuanced story that rivals the chants in their intricacy. There's not a false move in her writing and the novel is compelling reading. As I wrote at the beginning, this is my first Louise Penny novel, but it sure won't be my last!