Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An enthralling, elegant crime novel

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Gregorian chant has inspired and soothed both practitioners and listeners for at least 1,000 years, most recently in New Age and World Music revivals through the recordings of various French, Spanish and Austrian monastic orders.

Though some credit an increase in alpha waves in the brain, the precise method by which the monophonic liturgical chants seem to tame the savage beast remains ineffable, long deemed "a beautiful mystery."

The sharp contrast between this heavenly musical balm and very earthly murder forms the crux of Quebec author Louise Penny's eighth literary whodunit starring Sureté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. And it's a fascinating, memorable tour-de-force.

With The Beautiful Mystery, there's no longer any doubt: Penny is Canada's best contemporary crime writer, among the best in the world, and one of our best writers, period.

Wisely giving her improbably murder-prone village of Three Pines a rest, Penny dispatches Gamache and his partner, Insp. Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to the remote lakeside monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups to investigate the untimely death of the reclusive order's prior and choirmaster Frère Mathieu.

They have their work cut out for them. With the bludgeoned body found in a walled, single-entrance garden within a fortress that entertains no visitors, the story borders on a locked-door mystery. And with fewer than two dozen suspects, all singing monks, the community appears serene and disturbingly non-murderous.

Unlike in her Three Pines episodes, Penny does not offer a cryptic pattern of clues, a puzzle that readers are invited to solve. Rather, Gamache and Beauvoir chip away at barely perceptible cracks in the monastery's facade of serene unity, gradually revealing the truth. Though eventually unearthing several viable culprits, it's all common-sensical rather than contrived.

Nor is this a run-of-the-mill police procedural, despite the bare-bones affinity. The method here is more akin to a series of intimate therapy sessions, with a tag-team of psychoanalysts probing a group of patients who all know each other.

Throughout, there are the chants, the pristine, eight-times-daily celebrations of the Church's "Divine Office" that here engender both enlightenment and worldly temptation, providing a key to salvation as well as a lure to personal corruption.

It's fair to say the motive is in the music, providing a novel vehicle for Penny to again explore familiar themes of alienation, personal tragedy and dissolution, loyalty, jealousy and love in all its varied and sometimes deadly dimensions.

Of course, there are some flaws. Chief Supt. Sylvain Francoeur, boss and nemesis, provides only a thin foil for Gamache, his arrival on the scene meagrely explained. More egregiously needless (except, perhaps, in the context of future books) is the brisk disintegration of Beauvoir from brash, happy-go-lucky but reliable sidekick to a tortured, pill-popping, off-the-rails liability.

While Francoeur's motive is clear in stirring up demons from an earlier, fatal police raid that plague both Gamache and Beauvoir, the ramifications seem overly melodramatic.

But these are relatively minor nitpicks in an otherwise enthralling and sharply characterized tale, its short, crisp delivery belying a true poetic sensibility and rare elegance.

John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 J8

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