Louise Penny, author of “The Madness of Crowds,” is a literary artist. This latest work, a worthy addition to her “Inspector Gamache” series, exhibits all the brilliance that characterizes her every mystery novel. It’s exceedingly thoughtful, potentially controversial, and incredibly reflective of the contemporary issues which most of us find so exasperating, exhausting — even explosive.
Much of the novel’s setting in time is related to the horrors of the Covid pandemic and its consequences. Those consequences are explored and studied in the novel in profound detail, and the story virtually forces us to consider all those issues from our own very personal points of view as well as both the supporting and opposing positions of those all around us: political issues; medical issues; philosophical issues; psychological issues; mental health issues; law enforcement issues; familial issues; and the issues of all things good and evil, and, of course everything in-between those two extremes — wherein each of us resides — as does every character in “The Madness of Crowds.”
The three main characters are Chief Inspector Gamache, the brilliant but tortured detective who leads the police force in the small town near Montreal called Three Pines; Inspector Isabelle LaCoste, also brilliant, also tortured, especially by recent police-related incidents; and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s son-in-law, also brilliant, also tortured, in this case — particularly — by the condition of his beloved baby daughter, Idola, a Down Syndrome child. And therein lies one of the most significant themes and mysteries of the novel. But there are several other extremely important characters: a controversial statistics professor; a semi-mad poet and her absurdly foul-mouthed duck; Gamache’s wife and extended family; an old scholar and humanist who’s known around town as the Asshole Saint; a woman who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but who may be still another Asshole Saint; and several more, almost all of whom are suspects in the murder case that is the central plot point of the novel.
The case revolves around a particularly fascinating character, one Abigail Robinson, statistics professor par excellence, who has devised a theory and plan which she believes will pull the world out of the economic crises caused by the Covid pandemic. But her plan would necessarily involve undiluted cruelty to be perpetrated upon a significant percentage of the world’s population. As we might expect, given our knowledge of the human tendency to latch onto new and unique methods of directly and indirectly encouraging violence and tribal conflict, some folks adore the plan and others abhor it and its author. When Robinson is invited to deliver a lecture at a nearby university, the predictable near-riot occurs, and amidst the chaos, someone in the raucous crowd fires shots at her, but they barely miss, as Gamache himself covers her up, probably saving her life. But the worst is yet to come.
Shortly after the near-miss incident, a no-miss attempted murder succeeds. The professor’s assistant and dearest friend is brutally attacked and killed, her skull crushed, apparently with a sharpened log. It appears that the murderer has mistaken her for the professor, who is, after all, despised by those who are disgusted, horrified, by her plan, which seems to reflect her profound love for and trust in statistics and her profound disbelief in the sacredness of human life and love. The task of identifying the murderer falls, of course, on Gamache and his associates; and a complex and frustrating task it is. So many people justifiably despise the professor, and so many other people despise those who despise her.
I will not reveal the plan here. Louise Penny must be the only one to do so. I will, however, offer a hint. There is one very important character whom I have as yet to discuss. He is an historical figure who died long before the action of “The Madness of Crowds” begins, but his ghost haunts this novel and all its characters. His name was Ewen Cameron. Cameron was a revered psychiatrist and scholar, a pioneer in psychiatric theories and practices, particularly those involving the diverse phenomena of human memory. He was president of both the American and Canadian Psychiatric associations. But he eventually utilized his brilliance in the service of the CIA and that organization’s notorious MK Ultra program. And he devised novel methods of torture while using ordinary but troubled people as experimental guinea pigs. He was, in short, a monster.
The ghost motif, as it relates both to the influence of Ewen Cameron and at least one other ghost-like presence, is eerie and powerful. But an even more ubiquitous and significant motif is the much-iterated sentence, “All will be well.” The sentence and the sentiment represent a virtual mantra and a very real motto for Professor Robinson, and other characters are as obsessed by the sentence as the professor. It’s so comforting, so uplifting. Disasters, it seems to assure us, may plague us now, but they, too, shall pass, and we will return to our treasured normality. But the irony inherent in the promise, hidden deep within the old security-blanket statement, is eerily manifest. Serious and seriously ominous questions arise like a raging fire from the seemingly innocent phrase. How will we get from here (crisis and fear) to there (security and peace)? Will the accomplishment of wellness be achieved by means of decency and empathy or by means of powerful, corrupt, and selfish forces? And what, exactly is wellness? Is it health and happiness for all, or is it the continued dominance of oppressive policies and authoritarian principles? And who will decide, finally, what wellness is — and who deserves it? In Gamache’s world, and in ours, all is certainly not well.
The questions and issues surrounding the motif set the tone for the entire novel. And they keep us glued to our seats and to the book’s pages. This beautiful novel, a character study, a psychological study, and a complex, baffling mystery, deserves the attention of every lover of mysteries and every lover of contemporary literature. Real literature. I, for one, plan on reading all the Gamache novels leading to this one. Louise Penny is an author whose work should be carefully read, analyzed, and enjoyed. Hers is a unique talent.
Review by Jack Kramer.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Minotaur Books, the publisher, for review purposes.