The “beautiful mystery” referred to in the title is sung music know as plain chant or Gregorian chant. It is the earliest notated music in history, sung beginning in the 5thand 6thcentury. It is still being sung in monasteries and convents around the world. It is in one of those monasteries, deep in the North Woods of Québec where the murder in this mystery occurs. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is sent to investigate. The monastery is Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups and was hidden from the world for hundreds of years. But they published a CD of their music and astounded the modern world – even the Church in Rome who believed the Gilbertine order to have died out. No one from the outside world had ever been admitted until the discovery of the body. Gamache, his protégé Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir and the local Sûreté officer Captain Charbonneau are the first. In fact the boatman, who brings them on the final stage of their journey, is convinced they won’t get in. But murder has no respect for the secrets of the cloister.
The dead monk was the choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, and in his hand is a piece of antique vellum – scraped sheepskin which predates the commonplace use of paper in Europe. On it are the words to part of the Requiem (funeral) Mass – Dies Irae, or day of wrath. What does it signify, what was the murder weapon and why was the choirmaster's body in the abbot’s private walled garden, accessible only through his office? These questions and more are up to Gamache and Beauvoir to answer in order to find which monk is the killer. Adding to the pressure is the fact that Gamache’s superior officer is actively trying to get rid of him.
I love Louise Penny’s books. Her Gamache is the natural successor to Ngaio Marsh’s urbane civilized DCI Roderick Alleyn. He has a close relationship to Beauvoir and looks on him as a son. The calm atmosphere of the monastery as the monks go about growing their own food, tending their animals, harvesting wild blueberries to be dipped in dark chocolate and foraging for wild mushrooms in the surrounding woods sounds enchanting. The rhythm to the daily life in the Abbey, punctuated by the eight times a day the monks gather to chant prayers known as the Divine Office, is very true to life. Plus, I sang Gregorian chant in my youth and still prefer it to almost all contemporary music used in the Church today.
I liked this book on so many levels and can’t wait to see what further adventures lie in wait for Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir, although the ending was heartbreaking. If you haven’t read any of Penny’s books before, you might try this one or start at the beginning with Still Life. You won’t be disappointed, I can promise you.