The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (2012)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Book #8

“Gregorian chants…were so old, more than a millennium, that they predated written music. The chants were simple, but there was power in that very simplicity. The first chants were soothing, contemplative, magnetic. They had such a profound effect on those who sang and heard them that the ancient chants became known as ‘the beautiful mystery.’ The monks believed there were singing the word of God, in the calm, reassuring, hypnotic voice of God.” Prologue, The Beautiful Mystery

Armand Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, find themselves flying over the Quebec wilderness at the start of the series’ eighth book, The Beautiful Mystery. The two men have been asked to fly to a remote monastery — Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, Saint Gilbert Among the Wolves — to investigate the murder of one of the order’s twenty-four reclusive monks. Armand and Jean Guy will be among the first ever non-religious men to enter the church, which was built in secret nearly four-hundred years ago by a group of Catholic monks running from the Inquisition.

The order has always been made up of only twenty-four monks, men who have lived cloistered in the wilderness, under a vow of silence, never relying on the outside world. There only indulgence is their love of Gregorian chanting, which fills them all with religious ecstasy when they sing.  After nearly four-hundred years of solitude so extreme that even the Pope did not know they still existed, that peace has been shattered. One of their order has been murdered, and the killer must be among the other twenty-three monks living inside Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups.

Armand and Jean Guy are not what has shattered the monks world, not even the murder has caused devastation to the order; what has changed Saint-Gilbert is that the world found the monks and wanted to be let in…and the monks had begun to fight about whether or not to accept the world in. In fact, it was what they monks must valued — their chanting — that led people to their remote doorstep. To be more precise, a recording of their chanting had been publicized and enthralled people from around the world. A religious practice that the monks hold in the highest esteem has become the reason for murder.

The investigators find the men — silent, stoic, hard-working, devout — outwardly to be at peace with their simple life; kept company by their work running the monastery, their chanting, and God. Under the surface, however, Armand and Jean Guy find division, anger, and even hatred. It seems that after living “among the wolves” for so long, a wolf has finally gotten into their home and killed one of their flock.

The monks of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups are at turning point: should they lift their vows of silence and solitude and share their music with the world? Or should they fight to protect four-hundred years of tradition, even if it means battling with the outsiders who want so desperately to share in their love of the music of God?

The victim wanted to share their music with the world, and the killer had wanted to keep the doors firmly locked…and keep the music all to themselves. To force the killer into the light, Armand must first find the darkness lurking in each monk, searching for the one among them whose darkness has become something horrific.


A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (2010)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Book #7

Forgiveness is at the heart of Louise Penny’s A Trick of the Light; those offering it and those in need of receiving it, and what happens when forgiveness is offered and met with murder rather than acceptance.

As the book opens, Clara Morrow of Three Pines is celebrating her first ever solo art show at one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. There is a party at the gallery itself, but a larger, less formal and more fun party that takes place back in Three Pines for Clara’s beloved friends and neighbors.

However, not everyone is happy for Clara and not everyone is in the mood to celebrate her successes. There are people who are jealous of Clara, people who do not wish her well, and even those who would love to ruin her party if only to soothe their own wounded egos. Who are these people? It is hard to tell, for everyone is putting forth their best public faces; saying all the right things to Clara, appearing for all intents and purposes to be rooting for her. Indeed, one person is so angered that they have resorted to murder.

On the morning after the party, Clara’s husband finds a dead body in their garden. He and Clara are shocked to find a body at all, but even more shocked when they learn that the murdered woman was someone they both knew years before…someone who it is highly unlikely was killed in their garden on accident.

Enter Armand Gamache and his team of investigators, who arrive and learn that the body belongs to a woman — once well-known and powerful in the art world — now despised by many people in the Quebec art community, a woman blamed with ruining careers without a care, a woman many people at the party would have wanted dead — including Clara and her husband. Even more perplexing is the fact that the victim seems to have not seen or spoken to anyone involved in the case for decades; so her death at this juncture is deeply puzzling.

The officers must delve into the murky world of artists, art dealers, art galleries and art critics in order to sort out why this woman has been killed and who wanted to hurt Clara by killing her in Clara’s yard. As their investigation progresses, they also must delve into the world of Alcoholics Anonymous of which the victim was a part of in recent months. It is there, in the world of the addicted and the recovering that the theme of forgiveness emerges as central to solving the case.

Was the woman killed because someone could not forgive her for her past cruelties? Or perhaps, killed her so she could not ask forgiveness for herself and in the process reveal the lies of another person?

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

Kinsey Millhone Mystery Series, Book #25

I am astonished that in more than two years writing this blog, I have never before reviewed one of Sue Grafton’s outstanding Kinsey Millhone novels. Kinsey is Grafton’s smart, cranky private investigator who relentlessly digs into the cases she is hired to solve and many mysteries she feels compelled to solve, if only to satisfy her own curiosity.  Kinsey narrates all of the alphabetically named books in the series; beginning with A is for Alibi and ending (for now) with book number twenty-five, Y is for Yesterday.

In this most recent installment, the year is 1989 and Kinsey is back home in Santa Teresa California, recovering from nearly being killed by a serial killer who she tracked down in book twenty-four, X. The serial killer got away, but Kinsey has gathered enough evidence of his murders to have the man living on the run, being hunted by the FBI and several California police departments. In a display of her typical hard-headedness and refusal to quit or leave it to the authorities, Kinsey is still on the look out for the serial killer.

To pay the bills, Kinsey accepts a case from the wealthy local McCabe family who want her to look into who might have sent them a blackmail letter demanding $25,000. The couple’s son, Fritz McCabe, has only recently been released from prison where he served ten years for his role in the death of a high-school classmate in 1979. Enclosed in the blackmail letter, is a videotape that has highly damaging footage of Fritz that would almost certainly send him back to prison.

Despite her insistence that they should go to the police, the McCabe family implores Kinsey to look into the threat. If they go to the police, they will have to reveal the contents of the videotape and their son’s will likely be charged with another crime. Against her better judgment to shield Fritz (whom she instantly dislikes) from the police, Kinsey takes the case.

To begin looking into the blackmail demand, Kinsey must first research the murder that Fritz was an accomplice to; she is certain that the two crimes must be linked together. As always, her instincts are correct.

Kinsey learns that in 1979 Fritz and three other boys from an elite private high-school had brutally raped a 14-year-old female classmate and videotaped the entire assault. When the tape was stolen from the young men, they panicked knowing that they would be arrested if it is found. The boys learned that another classmate, Sloan Stevens, had the tape. When their attempts to bully Sloan into turning over the tape fail, the boys went further: they lured her to a remote cabin in the hills above Santa Teresa. Sloan was kidnapped, dragged into the woods, shot in the head and buried in a shallow grave.

Two of the boys were sent to jail for her murder, another was found to have played a role but was not sent to jail, and the fourth boy — the one whose father owned the gun and the cabin; the one who police believed to be the mastermind of the murder — took off and was never found.

Ten years later, the tape has resurfaced and a copy is now in the hands of Kinsey Millhone who has been entrusted with keeping it secret, and with keeping Fritz McCabe from going back to jail. Kinsey must simultaneously investigate the sexual assault, the murder of Sloan Stevens, and the blackmail attempt in the hopes that one of the players in these heinous crimes is stirring up the trouble. Oh, and she’s still hunting a serial killer…it’s a busy month.

Even though she is disgusted with Fritz McCabe and the other students who raped one girl and murdered another, Kinsey feels compelled to solve the mystery, Not to protect them, but in the hope that she can put all of the perpetrators back in jail where they belong once she is finished.

Secrets in Death by JD Robb (2017)

Book #45, Eve Dallas In Death Series (Several of which are reviewed in this site, search tag “Nora Roberts” to see them all.)

secrets in death robb

In the forty-fifth installment of her futuristic, sci-fi, police procedural mystery series, JD Robb brings back her entire cast of colorful, and often lovable, characters to New York City of the future; a place of crime, abuse, and violence; but also one of huge technological and social advances.

This book opens on a cold, February evening in a swanky wine bar, where Eve Dallas is meeting a colleague with whom she has had a contentious relationship with in recent years. As the two women discuss the best way to get past their personal differences, a women drops dead of a stab wound at the bar in front of them.

Although Eve and her colleague cannot save the woman, they are able to immediately open the investigation. The murdered woman was a TV personality famous for her ability to dig up dirty secrets on celebrities. Immediately it becomes clear that there are nearly infinite numbers of people who this woman has harmed with her malicious form of journalism. But Eve senses there is a rage even deeper than embarrassment behind the murder, and digs even deeper.

Soon Eve and her team uncover a list of people who the reporter was blackmailing: demanding both huge financial pay-offs and dirt on other rich and famous people as payment. It is in this group of people that Eve is certain her murderer lies…someone fed up with secrets and the horrible cost that the murdered woman extracted from them for not revealing it.

Another solid installment in a long-running and (mostly) enteraining franchise.

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny (2010)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Book #6

bury your dead

The dead abound in Louise Penny’s sixth Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novel, Bury Your Dead. The characters in the book are surrounded by the dead: men dead hundreds of years in the past, men and women dead in a terrible recent tragedy, and — finally — one newly murdered man. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache must simultaneously work to bury his guilt and heartbreak over the loss of fellow officers and work to uncover the person responsible for a man murdered in the present. Layered on top of these two challenges — one emotional, one professional — Armand Gamache is also following the trail of a long-dead man whose final resting place would answer the questions of many Quebecois historians.

After the horror of a police investigation gone wrong, one which left the Chief Inspector wounded and grieving, Armand has traveled to Quebec City to the home of his long-time mentor and friend to recover. While there, Armand is working to recover his physical strength and to quiet the ghosts of dead officers who are haunting him.

In an effort to find peace, Armand begins to spend his days at a small nearby library run by and dedicated to the English settlers of French-dominated Quebec City. Acting as amateur historical sleuth, Armand is hoping the library’s books might offer clues about a famous battle in the 1600’s that resulted in English-rule over the French residents of the city for centuries. What he finds instead is a dead body.

The dead man is a well-known local man who was known to be obsessed with finding the body of Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. So obsessed, the victim regularly broke into buildings throughout the city digging for Samuel de Champlain‘s burial site. When the man is found in a shallow grave inside the English library everyone is left to wonder– did he finally find the famous grave site? And if so, was he killed in order to keep the location of Samuel de Champlain a secret?

Assisting the local police, Armand beings to make inquiries into the case and he finds some of the grief that has been hanging over him for months lifting as he digs into the mystery. Working gives Armand a renewed sense of faith in his work as a police officer and allows him to process the deaths of his fellow officers from a remove. Soon police work becomes historical detective work as well; as the city’s history plays a crucial role — 400 years later — in solving this present-day crime. Armand’s love of Quebec history make his findings in the case thrilling as he gets to use his investigative skills to find the killer and learn more about his beloved home province.

Armand must uncover the secrets of the murdered man, a man who was obsessed with uncovering the location of a long-dead hero; and both men — one living and one dead — are following the trails of two mysteries that are intricately linked.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

little fires everywhere ng

The affluent and well-tended community of Shaker Heights, Ohio was created nearly one hundred years ago with the aim to build a suburban utopia. Precisely planned and governed by copious rules and restrictions, the community aims to be perfect in every way. Shaker Heights has excellent schools, no crime, generous community resources, natural beauty and a uniform look and feel that sends the message to visitors that Shaker Heights is flawless. Being a Quaker village, the town does welcome some poor and disenfranchised individuals into its utopia… as long as they are willing to hide any of the problems or imperfections behind a well-tended facade. The wealthy living there feel not only entitled and safe, but also virtuous for allowing their “less than” neighbors to stay.

“Shaker Heights has been founded…with the idea of creating a utopia. Order — and regulation, the father of order — had been the Shaker’s key to harmony. They had regulated everything to…make a little refuge in the world. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shaker’s had lived it so strongly it has seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up their with a deep propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws.” 22-23

Into this community come Mia Warren — a wayward artist and jane-of-all-trades — and her teenage daughter Pearl. The mother and daughter move into a rental property owned by Elena and Bill Richardson; whose great wealth allows them to earmark the rental for “needy” tenants. Having lived a nomadic and often spare lifestyle up until now, Mia has arrived in Shaker Heights with a promise to Pearl: they will stay put long enough for Pearl (a genius student) to finish her diploma at the community’s elite public high school and get into college.

Almost immediately, Pearl and Mia draw the attention of the Richardson’s four children. The two sons in the family are drawn to Pearl with her eccentric, bohemian beauty and her stunning intelligence. The oldest Richardson’s daughter Lexie, sees a shy and slightly nerdy girl to take under her wing and Izzy, the youngest daughter, becomes enamored with Mia. To Izzy, Mia is everything the other mothers in Shaker Heights are not: wild, non-conformist, and artistic — a woman who does not care at all about following the rules or fitting in.

Mia, despite her initial unease at the rigidity of the community, settles in once she realizes her daughter is thriving in school and has made friends with the Richardson children. But soon her unease returns, as Pearl begins to grow even closer with the wealthy, wild, Richardson kids: mimicking their behavior and allowing them to assert more and more influence over her.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person, your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. Each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be to return to that place again.” 122

Meanwhile, Elena Richardson notices that her daughter Izzy’s infatuation with Mia continues to grow and (like Mia) worries about the influence this very different, wild, rule-adverse woman has over her daughter. As a woman who has build her life around restraint and obedience, Mia represents someone who is determined cause trouble and upset the “natural” order of things. A solution presents itself: Mia will work part-time as the Richardson’s housekeeper and both women can keep an eye out on the other.

“All her life, Elena had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Better to control the spark and pass it from one generation to the next. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never — set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity.” 161

Mia Warren has spent her adult life hiding and running, but is determined to keep her head down and allow her daughter these few years to be a normal teen. However, Mia is inadvertently drawn into a local scandal — one that pits a poor immigrant woman against one of the town’s wealthiest families — that threatens to expose her secrets to the world, and more importantly, to Pearl.

Once the initial story has been established, Ng’s wonderful writing and story-telling really get a chance to deepen and pull readers further in. Soon we get glimpses deep into the hearts of each of the characters — teen and adult — and see their pain, their worries, and learn more about what motivates their actions. It is in this second half of the book where the author’s characters really shine, and where she is able to present a series of troubling mysteries that she expertly unravels for us.

A wonderfully written and compelling story about what it means to be a mother; what it means to be a family; and what the risks are to disobeying the rules…and the (sometimes even greater) risks to following them.


The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny (2009)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series, #5

the brutal telling

Just as fall is beginning to creep into the woods of Quebec, another murder brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache back to the village of Three Pines. A body has been found in the town’s beloved bistro, run by Olivier, and shocks the entire village.

This murder investigation is unlike any the Chief and his team have previously investigated. The victim is a man known by no one: who has no name, no home, no neighbors, absolutely nothing at all that allows the police to identify him. Without knowing who the man is, it seems impossible to determine why someone would want to kill him.

The location where the body was found, at Olivier‘s, offers the only insight early in the case. Was this murder a threat to Olivier? An attempt, as some villagers believe, by a new business rival to destroy the bistro, in an effort to make his own Inn more of a success? Armand is not sure, but his instincts tell him the the bistro owner is at the heart of the crime, even if it is not at all clear how or why.

When the coroner finds that the man was not killed at the bistro, but murdered elsewhere and moved to the bistro, Armand and his team begin to search for the location of the murder, with the hope that this will give them more information on the victim.

The trail they follow leads them deep, deep into the woods surrounding the village to a tiny, hidden cabin. Inside the modest cabin they find the murder scene…and a mountain of antique treasures worth millions of dollars.

Was the man murdered by someone who wanted the treasure for himself? Or by a person to whom the treasure rightfully belonged? Or is there a third and more complex relationship this unknown, unnamed man had with the murderer, one that grew so discordant that a murder was committed in a fit of rage?

It is greed, the deep and dirty desire for more that leads Armand to the killer. The killer, “a hungry ghost” whose emotional emptiness he has long been trying to fill with money but could no longer be satisfied with ordinary riches. The hole in the murderer’s soul demands it all, and death was the only way to get more.