DEBORAH CROMBIE: A high point in my year is the publication of a new mystery by my friend Louise Penny, and today is the day A BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY hits the shelves!
For those who might not be familiar with Louise's books, they are set in Quebec, often in the sometimes magical village of Three Pines, and feature Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete, as well as his family, friends, and colleagues. I've loved Louise's books since the first, STILL LIFE, and they've just gotten better and better. And this one--I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at the galley, and I can tell you it will knock your socks off. It also has a special significance for me, as you will see.
Chief Inspector Gamache and his colleague, Jean Guy Beauvoir, are called to investigate the murder of the choirmaster in an isolated abbey. There, they find not only a closed circle of suspects, but unexpected truths about themselves, and now Louise will tell us a little more about A BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY.
DEBS: I think it’s so interesting that we’ve both chosen to write mystery novels that are centered on “the beautiful mystery” of Gregorian chant. Mine, A FINER END, is set in Glastonbury, and the abbey where the chant was sung has long been in ruins.
But in A BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY you’ve set your story in a modern day monastery, hidden away from the world for centuries in a remote part of Quebec. Is Saint-Gilbert-Entres-les-Loups based on a real monastery?
LOUISE PENNY: Thank you, Debs! Actually, the monastery is inspired by one not far from our home. Michael and I have been there quite a few times and always send visitors there. They sing the Gregorian Chants as part of their Divine Office – and have the BEST shop, filled with produce from monasteries around Quebec, including their own….cheeses, chocolates, pies, jams, preserves, and CDs of chants. But – it became clear in researching this that I couldn’t set the book in a monastery, or even an order, that really existed, so I dug into history and found the Gilbertines, an order that actually once existed, but went extinct.
DEBS: Can you tell us how you came to write about chant? It is rather obscure—and absolutely fascinating.
LOUISE: I think I sort of backed into the chant thing. I was really interested in two other issues – the power of music and the power of silence. I loved that contradiction that a silent order could become world famous for their voices. So I began to think about the different ways we communicate, if not through speech. At the same time, I recognized the powerful effect music has on me – and I suspect, on most people. But I can only speak from personal experience. When I’m planning and writing a book, I listen to a lot of music. Not when I’m actually writing, but surrounding it I do. In fact, each book has its own ‘sound track’. When I get stuck, or have some time, I’ll get in the car and put on the ‘sound track’ and empty my mind. When I’m on a flight I plug into the iPod, and empty my mind. And that’s when inspiration strikes. Music seems to open a channel to come creative place I can’t normally get to. At the same time, a piece of music can transport us to another place and time, and not just evoke that memory, but the emotion. It can inspire great courage, and reduce us to tears. I was fascinated by it – and all this led me to look into the very first western music – plain chant. If music is a drug, then plain chant is uncut heroin for many.
I wanted The Beautiful Mystery to look at the monks and their devotion to God, but also their devotion to plain chant – the word of God, sung in the voice of God. And what some of them would do to defend it.
DEBS: As crime novelists, I think we are always intrigued by the closed circle of suspects, and you’ve certainly given us that in A BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY. Twenty-four monks. A locked door. So Gamache and Beauvoir know from the beginning, as do we, that the murderer must be one of these men. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore character, and the idea that no matter how intimate the circumstances, one can never completely know another person.
LOUISE: Yes, exactly! I loved that about this community of men – who lived so intimately, in such isolation, and yet never spoke. But some developed loving relationships, and some loathing. So that a bitter, but silent, civil war was being waged, though it takes Gamache and Beauvoir a while to realize that. I love the hermetic environment of some crime novels, that growing sense of claustrophobia, of the walls closing in, of intimacy and security turning into a prison. And someone they thought of as a brother, being in fact, a stranger. Capable of such a vile crime. How could they not know? How is it they didn’t know?
DEBS: You’ve taken us away from Three Pines in this book. We only see Gamache and Beauvoir, and as with the monks, the isolation serves to reveal things about the detectives. Can you say which came first—did you choose the setting because it would remove Gamache and Beauvoir from familiar circumstances and colleagues, or did the exploration of their relationship arise out of the setting?
LOUISE: Hmmm – that’s an interesting question. I knew I’d be setting this book in the remote monastery a number of years ago, when I first wrote the outline. It’s the first Gamache novel set completely away from Three Pines, and I knew it would be time – and necessary, for the characters, and for me as a writer. But by this stage in the series there’s a very strong character development arc, with serious issues faced by both Gamache and Beauvoir. It seemed this would be a perfect place to let that ferment. Two men who have lived and worked closely, who have an intimate relationship, and who are facing a crisis. Like the monks. What will they choose to do? The monastery acts as a sort of crucible. There’s no place to hide. And eventually, in the great silence, everything is revealed. What could be more terrifying that silence, when you have to come face to face with yourself?
DEBS: In eight books, I think you’ve done a masterful job of avoiding the pitfalls inherent in writing about a closed environment like Three Pines. As much as we love the village and its inhabitants, every few books you’ve taken us to other settings, so that when we come back to Three Pines it’s like meeting an old friend. Has this been deliberate?
LOUISE: Thank you, Debs. You and I talk a lot about that very danger – of falling, unwittingly – into a routine. Coming from you, whose books are always fresh and alive, that’s a great compliment. Yes, like you, I’m keenly aware of that danger and so every second book is set, for the most part, away from the village of Three Pines – because I don’t want to fall into a pattern. And, so that, when I do go back to the village (as I am right now writing the next book) it’s like returning home but seeing it with new eyes. I genuinely enjoy the company of the characters – but I have no desire to be imprisoned in the village or by the characters. It’s so important to be unpredictable, but natural – so that what happens to the characters is natural, though sometimes tragic. It’s critical to me that readers know that I love the characters, but that sometimes horrible things will happen, as it does in life. I never want a reader to pick up a Gamache book and think, ‘Same old, same old.’ But – I do want them to feel a sense of belonging, of community – of being among friends. As you’ve achieved so masterfully, Debs, with Duncan and Gemma, two people I no longer think of as ‘characters’, but as living, breathing people. With lives sometimes successful and happy, and sometimes devastating.
DEBS: In case readers are worried, they won’t be deprived of the tantalizing descriptions of food that usually accompany a visit to Three Pines—the monks eat well, and the monastery’s specialty is wild blueberries covered with dark chocolate. Any idea where we might find these?
LOUISE: As a matter of fact, that was inspired (read: lifted) from real life….every monastery in Quebec (perhaps in the world) has a vocation and there’s one in the Lac Saint-Jean area of Quebec that makes, among other things, chocolate covered wild blueberries. We used to get them when I lived in Quebec City. But they’re rare and precious. Blueberry season is very short and the monks don’t use preservative. So you can only find them for a couple of weeks. They sell out very fast, so spoilage is never an issue.
Shocking, really, how little creativity actually goes into my books. I’m just so lucky to live in this amazing part of the world that has one foot in the present and one in the past. Cutting edge technology is created in Quebec (the home of Bombardier) and monks who sing plain chant and make chocolate covered blueberries, as they have for centuries. And all I have to do is pay attention, and pay respects.
Thank you for this, my friend. You are such an amazing talent, and so supportive and kind. I’m a huge fan of your work, as you know, and cherish our talks, getting to compare experiences, that are at once different, but often very, very similar – especially the internal struggles to create the very best books, and to make sure we never, ever fall into a rut.
DEBS: You're so very welcome, Louise, and congratulations on a fabulous book! And one last thing--when I was writing A FINER END, I acquired a fragment of chant manuscript from (where else?) an antiquities dealer in Portobello Road, so I'm including a (bit blurry) photo in hopes that it will provide a little visual treat for readers of A BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY.
Louise is already on book tour, but she'll try to check in and say "hi" in the midst of her travels tomorrow.
And a last bit of Jungle Red business: If you missed taking our JUNGLE RED FAMILY FEUD survey yesterday, never fear, you have two more weeks to respond here.