This is a very good read and a very good mystery but it is not at the top of my personal favourites of this author because I love the Three Pines setting of most of her books and found it much less comfortable in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups in the Quebec wilderness.
The monastery is intriguing as are the monks themselves and the tension between Gamache and Beauvoir and their immediate boss Sylvain Francoeur who also comes to the monastery is somewhat higher than we usually experience in the Three Pines setting so perhaps it counterbalances the missing familiarity of Three Pines (not completely though!).
The mystery itself has to do with plainchant and Gregorian chants for which the monks have become famous through a recording they made to raise funds for much needed repair work on the monastery building. A bit of information which a reader might find helpful regards the term neumes. Neumes are musical signs written before clefs and which indicate the place to start; they are wavy lines which represent notes and tone and which give direction to singers.
There are only twenty-four monks at the monastery and so raising revenue is not an easy undertaking. The mystery is embedded in the fact that the monks became divided over the issue of making another recording because the very foundations of the building were slowly disintegrating and a very large sum would be needed to fund the repair. Making the recording meant entering the world they had left and having it intrude into their monastery in ways that were unknown yet but very threatening to the very core of their beliefs.
The title refers to what the church calls “the beautiful mystery” and scientists call alpha waves. A visiting Dominican monk puts it this way when asked what the mystery is: “Why these chants, more than any other church music, are so powerful. Since I’m a monk I think I’ll go with the theory they’re the voice of God. Though there’s a third possibility,” the Dominican admitted. “I was at dinner a few weeks ago with a colleague and he has a theory that all tenors are idiots. Something to do with their brain pans and the vibration of the sound waves.” Needless to say, the Dominican brings some comic relief into an otherwise rather serious story.
This novel seemed a tad long to me but not so much so that I was prepared to stop reading. The whole setting in the monastery is quite fascinating enough to keep one’s attention but it seems at times as if a resolution might have have been reached sooner. The conflict between the Chief Inspector and his superior begged for resolution as well and Inspector Beauvoir’s personal descent into a previous challenge was difficult territory for this reader also. The Dominican monk brings some light into the story but his presence also has a foreboding aspect initially.
All in all, as I said, a very good read just not my favourite Louise Penny/Gamache mystery. Oddly enough, my absolute favourite does NOT take place in Three Pines either so the setting alone cannot be blamed for my choices. Perhaps, as the saying goes, there is no accounting for taste sometimes.