Reviews by L. J. Roberts

LOUISE PENNY – The Beautiful Mystery. St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books, hardcover, August 2012; trade paperback, July 2013.

LOUISE PENNY The Beautiful Mystery

Genre:   Police procedural. Leading character:   Chief Inspector Gamache, 8th in series. Setting:   Canada.

First Sentence:   In the early nineteenth century, the Catholic Church realized it had a problem.

   The cloistered monks of Quebec’s self-contained Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups monastery focus their lives on prayer and the simplicity of Gregorian Chants. The murder of their prior and choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, has forced open their doors to Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec

   Penny’s writing is simply superb. Her prose is more than mere words telling a story, her phrases are stories in themselves:

   Gamache couldn’t yet see the blows that led up to the final, catastrophic crushing of this man’s skull. But he’d find them. This sort of thing never came out of the blue. There’d be a trail of small wounds, bruises, hurt feelings, insults and exclusions.

   Penny wonderfully and accurately describes the way in which music can transport the soul. Her analogies are highly evocative:

   The monk examined Gamache. “… We don’t just sing, we are the song.” Gamache could see he believed it. The Chief has a vision of the halls of the monastery filled not with monks in black robes, but with musical notes. Black notes bobbing through the halls. Waiting to come together in sacred song.

   The inclusion of humor adds levity, yet there is anger and pain as well. Her words are thoughtful and thought-provoking. There are contrasts such as describing one particularly dour monk as “The Eeyore of the monastery.”, while having a doctor describe how “People die in bits and pieces.” Her writing causes you to stop and consider the concepts behind the words and can compel one to share passages with others. I’ve been known to call friends at odd hours insisting that they “Listen to this.”

   Penny’s descriptions bring places and people to life, placing you at the scene and causing you to see, hear and know the things and people around you. Among Penny’s many strengths is her ability to create characters about whom you want to know more.

   This is finally, I feel, the first time we see Gamache truly at his strength in his role. At the same time, we are made painfully aware that although he has a very close relationship, both to its credit and detriment, with his second, Jean-Guy, there are others who would do anything to discredit him.

   There is a wonderful segment where we learn of the same information but from two separate perspectives. Rather than being redundant, it truly exposes the differences in the personalities of Gamache and Jean-Guy. We also learn the details of the enmity between Gamache and his superior in whom she has created a distinct type of evil; a character who truly excels at manipulation and cruelty.

   The story is very well constructed with plots and sub-plots each as interesting as the next. Lest you think this is a cozy, it is not. It is a traditional police procedural solved by investigating and following the clues. It is also a story of relationships and strong emotions, and there is nothing cozy about them.

   Staying up most of the night reading is not something one would normally recommend. Staying up most of the night with a new book by Louise Penny is almost unavoidable.

   A reader begins every book with the hope of finding something wonderful. The Beautiful Mystery is the realization of that hope. It is an excellent, beautifully written book that stays with you long after closing the cover yet leaves you wanting to demand the next book immediately. It is also only the latest in excellent series I recommend reading in order from the beginning.

Rating:   Excellent.