Gregorian Chants Meet Thelonious Monk

September 17, 2012

Somewhere, I told myself, amid shelves of long-ignored LPs, I had a recording of Gregorian chants. But where? After much foraging, the album eventually turned up, and, remarkably, my ancient turntable still worked, giving me the chance to experience—for the first time in some 40 years—the otherworldly serenity of this hypnotically alluring musical form.

What prompted me to return to Gregorian chants? A novel, naturally: The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny, the latest in her wildly popular series starring Armand Gamache, chief inspector of the Sûreté de Québec. That I am an unabashed fan of this series is itself a little surprising. Usually, I prefer my crime fiction to be thoroughly hard-boiled, without a hint of coziness. I want my heroes to drink booze, not tea, and I don’t want anyone interrupting the action to tell me how to make muffins. Penny’s novels are hardly traditional cozies, but when the setting is Three Pines, the Brigadoon-like village outside of Montreal, there is an undeniably cozy feel, and there is often plenty of muffin-making.

Her latest isn’t set in Three Pines, but it does take place about as far from my preferred mean streets as you can get: a monastery in a remote corner of Quebec. Not only that, the book’s plot is centered on the “beautiful mystery” of Gregorian chants (a far cry from Thelonious Monk, who occupies pride of place on my iPod). So why in the world was I so entranced by this novel, which begins when the choir director at the monastery is murdered, his skull bashed in with a rock? Perhaps it’s because Penny, even when she works within the tight structure of a classical mystery—whether it’s a Christie-like cozy or a locked-room drama—always incorporates a wealth of deeply felt emotion and interpersonal drama.

The locked room here, of course, is the monastery itself; outsiders are not allowed inside the walls, where 24 cloistered monks pray, make chocolate, and sing—though a few years earlier a homemade recording of their chants was released and created a sensation. Now, with the murder, the doors of the monastery are opened to Chief Inspector Gamache and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who are charged with finding a killer among a group of largely silent monks, who, it quickly becomes apparent, are engaged in a civil war over their music, but one “fought with glances and small gestures”—until now, when rocks have been added to the arsenal.

Yes, the action takes place in a locked room, but Penny layers her plots so intricately that we never feel confined. “The deepest passions could appear dispassionate, the face a smooth plain while something mammoth roiled away underneath,” Gamache thinks, expressing not only his frustration with the case but, inadvertently, the coming crisis in his relationship with Beauvoir. Of course, there is always something mammoth roiling away beneath the surface of Penny’s novels, but this time the roiling is set against the serenity of the chanting, producing a contrapuntal melody of uncommon complexity and beauty—just the ticket for a Thelonious Monk fan.



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