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.

Bill Bryson, Louise Penny, E-readers and Jane Austen

Made in America by Bill Bryson

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a lothario – an excellent ‘natural philosopher’ and a successful businessman of course but a regular lothario as well?

Or that a doctor was called a ‘pisspot’ and a footman a ‘fartcatcher’ in the eighteenth century?

Made in America is my first introduction to Bill Bryson. Truth be told it’s not even my copy – my husband got it for himself but I called dibs on it as soon as I saw it having heard such praises for Mr. Bryson from Mr. Husband. My morning commute is now devoted to Made in America and I have been progressing more or less at the rate of a chapter a day.

Made in America is an exploration of the origins and oddities of American English. As Mr. Bryson points out in his introduction, these explorations would be incomplete without the historical context that led to the genesis of these words and phrases, and indeed the historical anecdotes that surround the word in question and that form such an integral part of Mr. Bryson’s storytelling makes the book a fascinating read.

If I were to think of it I would assume history to be portentous, eliciting a sort of awe and bemusement. I would certainly not expect it to have an everyday-ordinariness. Or imagine that the origin-of-all-things (ok, words in this case) could have funny overtones to it. But that is precisely the feeling that I get reading Mr. Bryson. He has a gift for taking what one would assume would be banal and boring and making it interesting and fun.

For instance, did you know that the constitution of the United States of America owes its existence to the Oyster Wars – yes, a war between fishermen over the shell-shaped, staid-looking creature? Or that we can give thanks for Daylight Savings Time to a businessman who really just wanted more hours for playing golf?

This is my first time reading any sort of historical non-fiction and I am wondering how much of my enjoyment stems from the actual history and how much from Mr. Bryson’s skills as a writer.

With a keen eye for adjectives, Mr. Bryson seems to be a virtuoso at using simple, ordinary words to paint highly vivid and at times amusing images.

On the early colonists borrowing words from the Indians: “Most Indian terms, however, were not so amenable to simple transliteration. Many had to be brusquely and repeatedly pummelled into shape, like a recalcitrant pillow, before any English speaker could feel comfortable with them.”

On American English slowly assuming its own identity: “Partly from the lack of daily contact with the British, partly from conditions peculiar to American life, and partly perhaps from whim, American English soon began wandering off in new directions.”

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The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery, the latest in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec series, is the other book I’m currently busy with. This is my first introduction to Louise Penny and to crime fiction in general (my only other foray in recent times was The Faithful Place by Tana French – a novel I liked).

As with Miss French I find myself fascinated more with the characters than the plot. Indeed I have a suspicion that Miss Penny means it to be so. The Chief Inspector’s claim that a murder is really just the tipping point – a culmination of the thousands of small hurts and disagreements that began much earlier than the actual act of murder – makes me even more interested in the characters – who they are, their motivations, their ambitions – than in the plot that is unfolding.

I am inclined to think that in learning more about the individual, I will come to know more about the murder. Or that is what Miss Penny seems to be nudging me to think!

Update Feb 1, 2013: I’m now half-way through the book and the plot is thickening; the characters are more fleshed out; the fog around enimities and back-stories is slowly dissolving. In all, the book is becoming un-putdownable!

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The Argument for Books— ‘Heavy, Smelly, Cumbersome, Perfect Bound Books’ –  pushes across a point that at times seems to me a big justification for physical books – that “Books are a nexus”. Reading is a solitary experience and the advent of e-readers has made it more so. “Heavy, smelly, cumbersome books” through book stores and libraries and the passing of one copy from one generation to another makes the reading experience more communal.

I love and enjoy my Kindle hugely; however, I am NOT in favour of a completely paperless world. I see value in having BOTH paper and e-books and I most certainly do not want e-books to obliterate paper books.

I also wonder at the slightly fanatical tone that seems to tinge both the camps in any discussion on this issue.

I’m also thinking about Litlove’s recent comment that, “The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading.”

What do you think?

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In other news, 28th January was the 200th birthday of Pride & Prejudice!

Here’s a great article in LA Review: Pride & Prejudice Forever – I am tempted to look up the Patricia Meyer Spacks edition. I would love a critical reading of Pride & Prejudice with an understanding of the historical and political context in which Jane Austen wrote it.

And if you haven’t  yet you should check out The Lizze Bennet Diaries once. They’re fun!