A noteworthy murder mystery within a lost cloister

By Walt Braun

Put yourself in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entreles-Loups. It’s existed in near anonymity for hundreds of years —the home of what remains of the Gilbertine order, which fled the Inquisition and ended up in the New World, deep in the Quebec woods (Saint-Gilbert-Entreles-Loups means Saint Gilbert Among the Wolves).

Its occupants are two dozen cloistered monks who spend their days in work and prayer and who live under a vow of silence broken only when necessary and when they sing. Oh, how they sing. They might not know it, but they sing Gregorian chant like no one else on earth. In fact when they sing, the spiritual effect is overwhelming, bringing them that that much closer to God.

The Gilbertines might have continued to live thus indefinitely but for two events, both related to the plainchant they so dearly loved. The first was a recording, not a studio recording but a primitive one, of some of the monks’ music that made its way out of the wilderness. It acquired a following, first in other monasteries, but eventually became a sensation. The captivating voices and the unique sound make people wonder about the Gilbertines and make pilgrimages to the monastery in hopes of bottling some of the miracle of the music.

All were turned away.

The second event was the murder of the choir director, Frere Mathieu, an immensely gifted singer and master of the medieval music. He was found dead in the private garden of the abbot, Dom Philippe, also happened to be Frere Mathieu’s closest friend.

It was the abbot’s call to the police that drew Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his subordinate, Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete du Quebec to the monastery. Both were aware of the Gilbertines recording of the chants; the music gave Gamache great peace of mind and alternately bored and irritated Beauvoir. 

Inspector Gamache goes about his investigation methodically, not just interviewing the monks individually and learning their roles in the monastery’s operations, but marveling at the richness of the chants when the monks gather in the chapel. Gamache learns that the recording that brought notoriety – and money for badly needed improvements to a structure that was showing its age – wasn’t the blessing that it seemed. The change led to rifts within the monastery. Some monks agreed with Frere Mathieu that the Gilbertines ought to make the most of their musical gifts; they wanted not only to make another recording but to end their vow of silence, give interviews, go on television and perhaps even sing in other locations. Other monks agreed with the rules set down long ago and adhered to by Dom Philippe.

Inspector Gamache, who’s continually struck by the music and by the contradictions among these men of God who work and sing so beautifully together despite their rivalries, has his work cut out for him. His investigation grows complicated by the emotional and physical wounds he and his assistant had suffered in a raid months earlier in which a number of fellow police officers were killed. From start to finish, it is a fascinating tale that contains multiple beautiful mysteries.

The author, Louise Penny, has woven temporal and spiritual issues together and offered a remarkable tutorial on Gregorian chant, describing the music in such a way that it seems to ascend from the pages.

Her regular readers would recognize Inspector Gamache; this is the eighth novel in which she’s featured the detective. In Gamache, she’s created an intelligent, flawed, multidimensional character. It’s no surprise that Penny won multiple awards for her fiction. “A Trick of the Light,” her novel that preceded “A Beautiful Mystery,” earned both the Independent Literary Award and was named one of the Best Crime Novels of 2011. She knows her craft well.

Walt Braun is the editorial page editor for the Mercury.

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