In which I fall in love with Laurie R. King (of The Mary Russell Mysteries fame)

I had heard of but never read the Mary Russell mysteries. And then I came across Laurie R. King, the author of the Mary Rusell mysteries’ website. As I always do, I clicked on the page that said ‘Bio’ and stumbled upon:

Her Autobiography

I am a writer, because I love and have been nurtured by books.

and

One of the great pleasures in being the sort of writer I am, in having published The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, is looking up during a signing and seeing myself in the back row. The book, which begins with the heroine fifteen years old yet easily capable of meeting the great Sherlock Holmes as an equal, is the story I wish I had when I was twelve or fourteen. Fantasy, affirmation, a hint of romance, a dash of adventure: along with those shy girls in the back row, I am Mary Russell. Or I was at that age, in my mind.

and

But what do a much-uprooted childhood, a love of theology, travel to distant places, and the establishment of three homes have to do with the Laurie R. King entry in Contemporary Authors? If my husband had not been so near to retirement age, I might well have gone on into doctoral studies, become a Biblical scholar, and had a far different entry. Or if back in high school my math teachers had been more encouraging, my other secret passion might have taken root, leading me into architecture, in which case a Laurie King biography would have been found in another series entirely. Or if life had tugged just slightly harder in another direction, I might have pursued the mysteries of birth, and plunged into the joyous obscurity of a midwife, known only to those whose babies she had caught.

Instead, in September of 1987, when my daughter was in her second grade classroom and my son off to his preschool three mornings a week, I sat down with the Waterman fountain pen I had bought on the Oxford high street the summer before and wrote on a canary pad the words, “I was fifteen when I met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.”

And like that, I was a writer.

I think I am about to fall in love.

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Gamache 8) by Louise Penny

“The Beautiful Mystery” is the first Louise Penny I have read and I am in awe of Chief Inspector Gamache. As the head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec Chief Inspector Gamache wields a lot of power, both within his team as well as in the lives of those whom he’s called to investigate. Miss Penny has created a character who tempers his authority with kindness and compassion. She has created a character I not only care about but also admire. I want to find out more about him and read his story – his journey to the Sûreté du Québec, his moments of triumph and the ones that lead to irreparable damage, his character development and growth through the series. Given that this is the 8th book in the saga I guess this means that I will have to back-track and start from the beginning.

In fact reading this series in order might be a pretty good idea. Events that occurred in previous books continue to have dramatic consequences in The Beautiful Mystery. Not knowing the back-story makes for a distracting reading experience – I was left wondering if I would have more sympathy and understanding for one of the major characters in the book if I knew the particulars of what had led him to that point in the story.

The Beautiful Mystery revolves around the murder of one of the 24 saints cloistered inside Saint-Gilberts-Entre-les-Loups or Saint-Gilbert-Among-The-Wolves, a remote abbey in a secluded corner of Québec. The Gilbertines was a lost sect – nobody knew of their existence, including the Catholic Church that wrote them off as lost in the annals of history – till about two years before the story starts. The story of their discovery foreshadows the story of this murder mystery.

For centuries the Gilbertines have been singing Gregorian chants – the chants are their prayer, their passion and the only deviation from the life of silence they otherwise follow. Two years before the story begins Frere Mathieu, the choir-master and the prior, and the victim in the story makes a recording of their chanting that catches the world’s imagination. As the world clamors for more of the Gilbertines, their music, their faith, their very presence, the act of recording and making the chants available to the world outside brings into focus the cracks lurking beneath the surface of the abbey and its community of tightly knit monks.

This act brings to the fore the disagreement and discontentment that was simmering in the mists of silence. “So much can hide in silence” and this one act leads to a build-up that exposes that the monastery “was a walled world. With a pretense of control, without the reality of it.”

The Beautiful Mystery is an exemplar of Chief Inspector Gamache’s observation that murder has a whole trail of “old and decaying and rotting” feelings leading right up to it:

Emotions, Gamache knew from years of kneeling besides corpses, were what made the body. Not a gun, not a knife. Not a length of old iron.

Some emotion had slipped the leash and killed Frere Mathieu. And to find his killer, Armand Gamache needed to use his logic, but also, his own feelings.

What strikes me about the Chief Inspector’s observation is that while murder might be the extreme manifestation, all acts of misdeed have at their heart “old and decaying and rotting” feelings in some form or the other. This psychological insight is just one of several that Miss Penny peppers The Beautiful Mystery with and that makes the book such an interesting read.

I also found myself enjoying the unusual setting of a reclusive sect whose life comprises of the sparse Gregorian chants and their devotion to their faith. I would tend to assume that such a walled-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world place would be relatively free from emotional roils and the general messiness that characterizes living. Ms Penny however made me realize that no matter the world, it is, ultimately inhabited by human beings.

My only quibble with The Beautiful Mystery is that the plot resolution felt a little contrived. <SPOILER ALERT – highlight to reveal the text> First, the arrival of the Dominican who can sing Frere Mathieu’s last composition and second, the fact that this act leads to an irrevocable identification of the murderer felt a little limp. The Dominican singing was a gamble and the inherent uncertainty in this makes me uncomfortable with the resolution. To be fair, perhaps such gambles are a part of real life police procedurals too, I don’t know.

I will most likely go back to the very first of the series and also be on a lookout for Miss Penny’s next – the characters that she’s created and her keen observations and insights has ensured that.