Monday, January 19, 2015

Louise Penny and The Beautiful Mystery

Some writers of genre fiction claim to be limited by the constraints of the genre in which they write. These writers do little that is impressive or new, and blame it on the genre. For writers of detective fiction, the excuse is you can’t help but write two-dimensional characters because the genre emphasizes plot and calls for stock characters, detectives and criminals that possess recognizable traits and act in expected ways. Louise Penny did not give herself such an easy out when she wrote The Beautiful Mystery, and managed to create not one but two full and rich and distinctive characters in Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his partner Inspector Jean Beauvoir.

When I went to graduate school to get a Masters in English Literature (there, it’s out, and I know that having done so may very well keep me from writing an accessible and entertaining book review that makes any kind of sense, but I’ll try), we talked a lot about what we called “binaries,” which is what a normal person would simply call a pairing of opposites. We spoke of which partner in the binary was “privileged” and which was “marginalized.” Some of the more popular binaries were man/woman, white/black, rich/poor and heterosexual/homosexual. Texts, or cultural artifacts (only civilians called them books) unconsciously reflected the way society privileged and marginalized the members of these pairings.

It was all about politics, about who had been shut out and was now going to be let back in by interrogating the text and deconstructing it, and it was tedious. Not that I didn’t, or don’t, believe that we favor one member over the other in a lot of these binaries, but it seemed like it didn’t have a lot to do with writing, with the use of metaphor or narrative technique, which was the reason I had decided to go to grad school in the first place, to talk about the great books and the great writers, to learn about them and maybe about how to write like them, even just a little, and not to natter on endlessly about how unfair society is (doesn’t everyone over the age of six know that already?)

But Penny got me thinking of these binaries in a new way. In a number of new ways. Gamache and Beauvoir function in the book as surrogate father and son, as mentor and pupil, and as two parts of an investigative whole that can only function each with the other. Early on we are told of Beauvoir: “He dealt in facts. Collected them. It was the Chief who collected feelings.” And they are complementary in other ways too: Beauvoir likely to verbally assault a suspect until he confesses out of shame or rage, while Gamache practices patience, using his calm ingratiating way to make people want to tell him things.

There is another binary at the center of this book, a book about a murdered monk in a monastery in the Quebec wilderness that is lost to the world until it releases CD of the 24 resident monks singing Gregorian chants: that of the abbot, or father, Dom Philippe, and his prior, Frere Mathieu—the murdered man. Philippe is the traditionalist, wanting to not lift the vow of silence on the monastery, to make another recording and open up the place to the outside world, even if doing so might earn the money needed to save the foundation of the crumbling 500-year-old structure. Mathieu takes the success as a sign from God they go out into the world, save souls and save themselves. He is a charismatic, finding God in the music, while the abbot, who is also his great friend, prefers to find God in prayer.

Many of these opposites require us to try and find a balance between them. Other binaries require we strive towards one and reject the other, in an endless struggle to affirm right and turn away from wrong. And sometimes it is hard to know which is right.

When Sylvain Francoeur, Gamache’s superior, shows up at the monastery, it is to settle an old score with Gamache, which he tries to do by destroying Beauvoir’s faith in his mentor. Gamache feels a murderous rage, and comes perilously close to acting on it. He knows that such passion is not an excuse for such an act, that every killer feels permitted by their rage to commit their crimes, which is nevertheless what they are—crimes. Gamache knows life is a struggle to turn towards the good, the light, the just, and maybe to God, and away from the wrong, the evil, the unjust. The monks, called Gilbertines, had fled from the Inquisition to the New World, and called their place in the woods Saint-Gilbert-entre-les-loups. Gamache thinks that this means Saint Gilbert among the wolves, but comes to think it means between them, as in the old tale of a boy who tells his grandfather he dreamed there were two wolves inside of him. One wants him to be patient, courageous and kind, while the other calls for fearfulness and cruelty. The boy wants to know which of the wolves fighting inside him will win, and the old man tells him whichever one he chooses to feed.

This is why Gamache says, when he conquers his rage, that “the natural and the manufactured come together here in this far flung monastery. Peace and rage. Silence and singing. The Gilbertines and the Inquisition. The good men and the not so good.”

I won’t get into the plot itself here. It’s cleverly constructed, and a lot of fun. Still, I was more impressed and interested in the interaction between Beauvoir and Gamache. Beauvoir has only recently come out of rehab for an addiction to painkillers resulting from a shootout in a controversial case wherein a lot of the officers of the Surete (Police Force) were killed. Franceour blames Gamache and does a number of devious things to make it seem to Beauvoir that Gamache is an opportunist who botched the case and who has no loyalty to anyone but himself. In the way of sons and pupils who have the capacity to doubt their fathers/teachers, Beauvoir finds it within him to blame Gamache for the disastrous shootout and his subsequent addiction instead of facing up to his own doubts and fears. Franceour even manages to manufacture a fake prescription for painkillers and gets Beauvoir to take them again.

It’s the classic struggle to turn away from the darkness and toward the light, and to know in which direction both things lie. Beauvoir fails, and even assaults Gamache in an attempt to get his drugs back. But the loving father doesn’t reject his son. Anymore than the monk who takes the confession of the killer does: “ __________ cried and begged him to understand. And the abbot found that he did.

Mathieu was human, and so was this young man.

And so was he.”

© 2015 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Mike! And a confession. I, too, have an MA in English. I think it's the PhD that's the real killer of clear prose.I was in a PhD program, but there were no jobs and starving just isn't really romantic and if you need poverty to build character , I'll remain shallow. But worry not. Your prose style remains very engaging and readable.