Penny, Louise. The Beautiful Mystery.

NY: St. Martin, 2012.

I’ve enjoyed all seven of the previous novels about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sûreté, even when the author goes a little over the top regarding the mysticism of art, because there’s always the down-to-earth murder investigation to balance things. But I don’t quite know what to make of this one.

Gamache and his sidekick, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, go off on their own to look into the murder of the prior of a Gilbertine abbey in the far-northern wilderness of Quebec — a location so remote and isolated, it’s been effectively lost to the world for nearly four centuries. (But there are practical problems with that assertion if you think about it for just a minute. . . .) The Gilbertines, practically extinct ever since the Inquisition took an interest, were always noted for their Gregorian plainchant and that’s the focus of the story here. A couple years before, the prior, who was also the choirmaster of St. Gilbert’s, produced a rather amateurish recording of the brothers singing and it took the Western world by storm — and also earned them an unexpected pile of money, which went to the repair and upgrade of the abbey itself. But now the prior is dead and there are only two dozen monks, so the pool of suspects is quite limited.

As they prowl around, interviewing the brothers and learning about the history of plainchant, Gamache becomes more and more comfortable in these alien surroundings while Beauvoir becomes more and more restless. What keeps Jean-Guy more or less sane, though, are the texts he exchanges with Gamache’s daughter, Annie, with whom he has been having an affair for several months now. This possibility was hinted at in the previous book, but apparently Annie, who recently separated from her husband, jumped right in with no hesitation. (I could believe it of Jean-Guy, who has been somewhat unbalanced since the bloody shoot-out with the terrorists several books ago, but it seems very out of character for her.)

But then, just as the investigation is progressing nicely, Chief Superintendent Francoeur shows up in a float-plane (which, apparently, Gamache and Beauvoir didn’t have access to, since they had to resort to a canoe) and that’s where the story begins to fall apart. Francoeur is nothing but pure evil — you can practically see him twirling his mustaches and flipping his black cape over his shoulder — and he and Gamache hate and despise each other. Gamache had arrested the previous Chief Superintendent, a close friend of Francoeur’s, and who is now in prison for life (which would simply never happen in the Real World, but you’ll have to read the whole series for that back-story), and his new boss is out to ruin him. And if he can’t get his talons into Gamache directly, he’ll settle for taking his revenge via Beauvoir.

I admit, Beauvoir is my least-favorite character in the series. He’s small-minded, hyper-cynical, overly suspicious of everyone, and always a card-carrying Philistine — and proud of it. Art and music are totally worthless as far as he’s concerned, everyone is guilty of something, and once he has decided who’s guilty (often in the absence of actual evidence), it’s almost impossible for him to change his mind. He’s good at gathering facts and data, but it’s difficult to see just what makes him so valuable to his boss. Or, for that matter, what Annie, a well-educated young attorney, might see in him. Everyone else involved in the terrorist-hunting episode went through physical and psychological therapy and has successfully come out the other side — but not Inspector Beauvoir. And that’s Francoeur’s leverage.

Gamache solves the mystery, of course, and identifies the killer practically at the last moment — they’re going to depart the abbey in only an hour or two — but without much help from Beauvoir, who is having a relapse, or a breakdown, or something. The final few pages are painfully melodramatic. Again, you can hear the rising organ music in the background. There are a couple of plot holes, too. Like, the Abbot of St. Gilbert’s recruits new monks on a regular basis by visiting other monasteries and interviewing exceptional musicians among the young religieux — but St. Gilbert’s has still remained a secret for centuries? No other monk anywhere inside Canada or out has ever said a word? This is far from being Penny’s best work.


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