I saved this book—number eight in Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” mystery series—to read while on vacation in Québec. Although I didn’t seek out specific areas highlighted in the books, I visited some of the same locales, from the most ancient part of Québec City (where Bury Your Dead is set) to the neighborhoods of Montréal (home to Inspectors Gamache and his lieutenant, Beauvoir) and even a final day driving through the Eastern Townships, the region where Penny’s elusive Three Pines village is hidden.
In earlier books in the series, I’ve found myself rushing through some of the familiar exchanges among the Three Pines regulars (Clara and Peter, Gabri and Olivier)—and positively irritated by curmudgeonly poet Ruth Zardo. I didn’t realize how much variety these characters provide until they were missing, as they are in The Beautiful Mystery. Here, Penny focuses exclusively on Gamache and Beauvoir’s investigation into the murder of a monk in the remote, “near mythical” abbey of Sainte-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (“among the wolves”)—even more difficult to find than Three Pines.
The only sub-plot here involves interference from Superintendent Francoeur, Gamache’s boss and a dangerous adversary. No relief to the main plot at all, but a creeping sense of dread surrounding past betrayals at the Sûreté of Québec: a motif that ebbs and flows through most of the series. Both plot and sub-plot explore issues of power, its uses and abuses.
For even in a such an ostensibly idyllic setting as an abbey inhabited by two dozen chant-singing but otherwise silent monks, a power struggle has been seething, brought about by the popularity of a recording of their exquisite chants. Gamache and Beauvoir must live among the monks while hunting for the killer, causing both men to reflect on their own complicated relationships with the Catholic faith.
As Penny tells it, Catholicism in Québec is on the decline:
“Jean-Guy Beauvoir sat back down on the hard wooden pew. He went to church as rarely as possible. Some weddings, though most Québécois now preferred to simply live together. Funerals mostly. And even those were becoming rarer, at least in churches. Even the elderly Québécois, when they died, now preferred a funeral home send-off. It might not have nurtured them, the funeral home. But neither had it betrayed them.”
“Like many of Québécois of [Beauvoir’s] generation, he had no use for the Church. It just wasn’t part of his life. Unlike previous generations. The Catholic Church wasn’t just a part of his parents’ lives, and his grandparents’, it ruled their lives. The priests told them what to eat, what to do, who to vote for, what to think. What to believe.
Told them to have more and more babies. Kept them pregnant and poor and ignorant.
They’d been beaten in school, scolded in church, abused in the back rooms.
And when, after generations of this, they’d finally walked away, the Church has accused them of being unfaithful. And threatened them with eternal damnation.”
Beauvoir’s view, that church ruled people’s lives, certainly rings true. On our trip, we stayed for a few days on Île d’Orléans, one of the first settled sites in New France. The island, off Québec City’s coast, is a little over 100 square miles, yet has six parishes and many more tiny chapels. Our B&B host shared a book of the island’s history with us, and it was almost entirely centered around the building of churches and the life of the parishes. For centuries, life did equal church for these people.
Beauvoir struggles to understand why men—and especially one man, who seems a lot like Beauvoir himself—would choose to isolate themselves from the world. “Was it faith or was it fear?” But he has to grudgingly admit respect for the cloistered life: it’s “tough.”
Gamache is older, but no more religious than his second-in-command. He does find solace in the “beautiful mystery” of the chants, texting his wife Reine-Marie that the singing was peaceful, magical, and that, in singing, the monks seem “free from the cares of the world.” Yet he also analyzes the effect: “to a man they go into a sort of reverie when singing the chants. Or even just listening to them…I’ve seen that look before…[o]n the faces of drug addicts.”
In Gamache’s message to Reine-Marie, he compares the chanting at St. Gilbert’s to chanting they’ve heard at a more accessible (and real) abbey, Saint-Benoit-du-lac, which my husband and I visited on our way through the Eastern Townships. We didn’t hear the chants, and, frankly, the place was a bit of a disappointment. It’s rather austere, and one of the few churches I’ve ever stopped at (and I’m an inveterate church visitor) that felt devoid of spirit, just a building that smelled of incense. I can’t help but wonder if that’s because it doesn’t belong to a parish, a community of people—like the parishioners of Sainte-Famille or Saint-Jean on Île d’Orléans—but only to “professionals.”
While I can’t say that The Beautiful Mystery was my favorite Gamache novel, it did enrich my travels and sparked my own reflections about the mysteries of faith.