About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part II)

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part II) – In my previous post on Wednesday I discussed what I liked about The Beautiful Mystery and said this post would deal with what I did not like about the book. I warn potential readers of the book that the remainder of this post, though it does not reveal the plot, may contain spoilers that could affect their reading of the book.

The book involves a murder committed in a remote Quebec monastery. What I did not like about The Beautiful Mystery revolved around religious aspects of the story.

The faintly to overtly mocking attitude of the investigators towards the Catholic church, Christianity and the faith based lives of the monks disappointed me. As an active Catholic it bothered me to see such an approach. I know her characters reflect a common sentiment. At the same time I doubt they, especially Gamache, would have expressed the same attitudes towards secular, or even other religious, belief systems. I expect they would have shown a respect they do not have for Christians. It is certainly Penny’s choice on how to approach an issue and I acknowledge I was affected in my reading by my own beliefs.

I felt there was little regard and less understanding of men who devote their lives to God. I advise a reader wanting to understand contemporary monastic life to read The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. It covers her experiences living with Benedictine monks in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Grievous wrongs have been done by members of the Church. At the same most religious have lived good lives devoted to God and helping others. A book set amidst men committed to God would do better to have more regard for their life choices.

While I regret the attitude towards the Catholic Church and Christian faith of greater distraction to me was the portrayal of the monastery.

It is a Gilbertine community but they were extinguished as an order when Henry VIII closed their monasteries in England in the 16th Century.

To assert a community survived and made its way secretly to the New World and then paddled into the Quebec wilderness and built a hidden monastery of which there has been no knowledge within the Church for hundreds of years defies belief.

Every monastery has a relationship with the Vatican through the head of the Order. Equally each diocese in which a monastery is located is connected to the monastery. Whether in urban or rural Quebec the local bishop knows all monasteries in the diocese.

Priests are ordained by bishops after training in seminaries. It would appear at least the Abbot in the book is a priest by presiding over Mass. He would have had to leave the monastery to be educated. For ordination he would have been at another monastery or a bishop would have come to his monastery.

Outside communities interact with monasteries. There is commerce with all monasteries. The book alludes to the need for money to be earned by the monastery to sustain the community. Cloistered or not monasteries enter into business.

The monastery of the book has been repeatedly repaired. Building supplies and tools must have been purchased and delivered.

It bothered me to have the monks raising animals in the forest without apparent fields to grow the hay and feed. Monks certainly are farmers but they have contacts with those around them. The discussion over chickens could not have taken place without contacts, at a minimum, with other monasteries.

It is the second time Penny has created an implausible situation of “invisibility”. In The Brutal Telling it was a hermit leaving few kilometres from Three Pines. Supposedly no one knew of the hermit. It is not possible to remain unknown near communities.

I could suspend my disbelief for the hermit but not for a whole monastery.

Having the Abbot recruiting monks from other monasteries for an invisible community added to the implausibility. It would certainly be very well known in the Church if monks are leaving monasteries for this monastery.

It did not ring true to have the Abbot engage in such recruitment. I have not heard of Abbots seeking monks only from other monasteries, especially in other Orders.

Monks being recruited for their singing talent would have drawn great attention within the monastic world.

Monks are also a part of government records. Whether for personal income tax or pensions or death certificates monks are recorded.

Even if families would have little contact with cloistered monks they know where their family members have gone to live their lives.

I went to three years of high school and first university at a Benedictine monastery, St. Peter’s Abbey, in Saskatchewan. The monks were a part of their local area while remaining apart.  I appreciate St. Peter’s is not a cloistered community but even closed monastic communities are a part of the life of their area. They do not deny all contact with the world.

I struggled with the portrayal of the monks as locked away from the world, refusing visitors any admittance to their monastery. The monasteries of my experience do not bar visitors, especially pilgrims or people in need, from all contact.

It may add to the story to make the community so closed they are a complete world but it would have been more credible to have them in regular contact with and known to the world. They can be cloistered, even isolated, but still be of the world and maintain the integrity of the story.

To avoid prolonging this post I leave aside my issues with the visitor from Rome.

P.D. James set her book Death in Holy Orders in the closed setting of a remote Anglican seminary. She does not portray the religious as disappeared from the world. It was far more credible to me.

Penny’s monastery would work for fantasy fiction but not for me in a mystery. I will continue to read Penny but I hope future books, if not set in Three Pines, take place in plausible communities.


  1. Anonymous: I am deleting your comment. I will allow it to be re-posted on the blog if you do it under an identifiable identity.

  2. Bill - Thanks for this thoughtful, candid and detailed explanation of your views about didn't work for you in The Beautiful Mystery. I think it's especially difficult to be asked to suspend one's disbelief about something one knows well; given your experience with monks I can see how you'd have been pulled out of the story by aspects of that setting that didn't ring true for you. I still plan to read this. I can't help it; I like the series too much not to. But I will definitely keep what you say in mind.

  3. Margot: Thanks for your kind words. I dislike having to suspend disbelief in mysteries. I will be interested in your thoughts after you read the book.

  4. Aha! I just knew your "issues" had to do with the religious aspects of the book. I so appreciate this thoughtful and mature way of handling disagreement with an author's work rather than the juvenile tantrum I read elsewhere.

    I don't think this will spoil the book for me. I was raised Catholic and have an abiding respect for men who give themselves up for a life devoted to God no matter how they chose to do it. I have personally experineced one of myfriends going through all the steps of becoming a priest from his dyas in seminary to ordaination and it was eye opening and humbling. I understand deeply on a personal level what the decision entails, too. I had considered a life of a monk when I was a very young man, a bit too green to understand thoroughly what it would have done to me. I rightly changed my mind and chose college instead. I have never regretted that choice. I think men who life a full life and then come to feel a calling to serve God make much better priests and monks than those who choose to do so when they are barely adults.

  5. John: Thanks for a striking and thoghtful comment. I appreciated learning of an important life decision of yourself and how it resonates with your understanding of the book. I hope you will read and review the book.