Freedom of speech. Academic integrity. The right to life. Louise Penny’s latest novel, The Madness of Crowds, seamlessly integrates these wide-ranging themes into a deftly-plotted murder mystery that reveals humanity at its best – and its worst.
Louise Penny began writing the novel, the 17th in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, shortly after Canada went into an anti-coronovirus lockdown. It was only when she was half way through the first draft that she decided to set the novel in a post pandemic world.
The Madness of Crowds isn’t about the pandemic as such but instead shows how it created an atmosphere in which a different form of contagion could take hold. It made it possible for ideas to gain traction that, at other times, would be dismissed as unthinkable and distasteful.
The contagion in this novel begins with a seemingly innocuous research paper, authored by a little known professor of statistics, on the social and economic consequences of the pandemic.
Professor Abigail Robinson’s recommendations tap into the despair of a population feeling bruised, haunted by the loss of loved ones and in fear for the future.. They’re more than receptive to the professor’s confident assertion (backed up with solid factual evidence) that things will get better, that the economy will bounce back and the health care will never again run short of beds, equipment or drugs.
Message Goes Viral
But the message behind Professor Robinson’s slogan ça va bien aller (all will be well ) is anything but innocent. For all to be well, she asserts, the population needs to make just one sacrifice: the bed-bound stroke victims, the frail and the sick, the young born with genetic illnesses should be helped to die. In essence, she is advocating for legally mandated euthanasia but hiding it behind a rational argument for better use of resources and a way to relieve suffering.
Her message goes viral but though it quickly gains momentum it also divides the nation. Some see it as a practical solution to the problem of limited resources. Others view it as an outrage.
The clash of opinions comes to a head one wintry night when Professor Robinson delivers a lecture at a Quebec University. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, pleads with university authorities to cancel the talk but is stonewalled by arguments about the principles of free speech and the need for academic institutions to accommodate dissenting voices.
Chaos ensues when someone in the audience fires a shot at the professor. Days later, Professor Robinson attends a New Year’s Eve party in Three Pines, the idyllic village which is home to the Chief Inspector. Before the night is over, the body of a woman is found in the snow.
As Gamache and his two assistants, Jean Guy and Isabelle, investigate, their personal repulsion over the Professor’s message clashes with the need to maintain an open mind on the reasons for the killing. Was it motivated by hatred towards the Professor’s ideas or by a desire to protect her from other’s hatred?
Personal In Conflict With The Professional
They have plenty of suspects: among them an esteemed medical researcher hiding his past involvement in a notorious psychological experiment; a university chancellor who acted as loco in parentis to the professor and a young female victim of atrocities in Sudan now slated to become a Nobel Laureate for her humanitarian efforts.
The setting of Three Pines with its unusual array of inhabitants is one of the pleasures of this series. Regular readers might be disappointed that there are not more scenes in the bistro and that well-established figures from past novels don’t have as much prominence in The Madness of Crowds. The award-winning poet Ruth, the respected psychologist Myrna and the acclaimed painter Clara are almost incidental in this novel.
As always however it’s the character of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache that is the strength of the novel. I think anyone who has read the earlier titles knows that he is a good judge of character, a wise man much given to quoting poetry and philosophy who is confident of his abilities but also conscious of his failings.
The Madness of Crowds sees this man of high principles confront a moral dilemma. If Professor Robinson is not stopped, her ideas,, based on half truths and distorted logic, could infect the whole country. His own grand-daughter, born with Down’s Syndrome, could be one of the innocent victims. As a police officer, Gamache knows he is duty bound to protect her from harm. But as a man, and a grandfather, he is afraid that in doing so he is letting loose a monster.
A Moral Maze
The moral maze gives an interesting dimension to what would otherwise be a very straight-forward murder mystery.
The Madness of Crowds is an entertaining novel but I don’t think it’s one of Louise Penny’s best. She makes good use of a contemporary reality – the use of social media to rapidly disseminate selective truths – and the real-life event of scandalous mind control experiments; but setting the narrative in a post-pandemic world was a risky decision. I don’t feel it paid off. At the time the novel was written, the world was still in the grip of the crisis and few people could predict the future. So her descriptions of life after restrictions are lifted, come over as charming but rather simplistic.
When the pandemic was finally, officially, declared over, the little village of Three Pines where the Gamaches lived had gathered on the village green where the names of the dead had been read out. Loved ones had planted trees in the clearing above the chapel. Then, to great ceremony, Myrna had unlocked her bookstore. And Sarah had opened the doors to her boulangerie, Monsieur Béliveau put the Ouvert sign in front of his General Store and a cheer rose up as Olivier and Gabri unlocked their bistro.
I did enjoy the book but not to the same extent as previous novels in this series. It’s left me wondering whether the series has now run its course and its time for the Chief Inspector to hang up his hat. I hope I’ll be proved wrong by book number 18.
The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny: EndNotes
Louise Penny was a a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation until she decided to become a full time writer. Her character Chief Inspector Gamache is based on her husband Michael. Today Penny lives outside a small village south of Montreal.
The Madness of Crowds will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in August 2021. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The book’s title is taken from an 1841 work, Popular Delusions And the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay which is a series of non-fiction essays that look at why sane people believe ridiculous things (leading to Tulipmania and the South Sea Bubble). It sounds so fascinating i’ve ordered a copy.
I read this book as part of my #20booksofsummer reading for 2021.