One of the buzziest books this fall is “State of Terror,” a political thriller co-written by Hillary Clinton and Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny. Until its October release, Penny’s fans can revel in “The Madness of Crowds,” No. 17 in the popular author’s beloved Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. But be forewarned: “The Madness of Crowds” is not an escape hatch. The bucolic village of Three Pines, where most of Penny’s novels are set, has not been spared from covid-19.
Penny’s latest offers little in the way of a soothing balm for nerves frayed by months of isolation and quarantine. Its chills don’t come from the icy winter temperatures in Quebec but from the dystopian story line and its uncomfortable reminder of some of the worst days of the pandemic.
Nursing homes were hit hard by covid-19, and their vulnerable populations died in record numbers. This held true in Canada, and one can assume Penny was so moved by these heartbreaking losses — she dedicates the novel to front-line workers — that she decided to weave the tragedy into “The Madness of Crowds.”
When the novel opens, all seems well. It’s late December and the residents of Three Pines are reveling. Unlike in real life, the pandemic is over and the village’s bistro, bookstore and boulangerie are open. Holiday season festivities are underway. It’s during this period of renewed hope that Gamache is asked to provide security for a speaking event at the nearby college. As head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, this is an unusual request for him, but he readily agrees.
The guest speaker is Abigail Robinson, a controversial statistician hired by the Canadian government to analyze the country’s pandemic-related data. According to her analysis, the sick and elderly used too many of the country’s resources during the pandemic. In other words, people who were the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, who would die soon anyway, were putting a strain on the country’s finances, medical supplies and personnel. It is, she says, “a crisis heightened but not created by the pandemic.”
Robinson’s solution is horrifying but not unprecedented. It’s best for readers to discover her recommendations through Gamache, who witnessed firsthand the dead and dying in care facilities. What he saw has marked him, and “it was a shame he’d carry all his life. Not that he himself has abandoned these people, but that Quebec had. That Quebeckers had. And that he, as a senior police officer, hadn’t realized sooner that this could happen in a pandemic.”
Angered and frightened, Gamache asks the college chancellor to cancel the event. He’s accused of stifling free speech, and the event goes on. It’s no surprise that Robinson’s appearance sparks chaos, and an attempt is made on the professor’s life.
Gamache must find who was behind the attack and whether that person is also culpable in a killing that happens soon after. Most important, he needs to unearth the motive. Is it connected to Robinson’s diatribe? Is it a revenge killing, a case of mistaken identity or did someone take extreme measures to stop Robinson’s ideas from infecting the world?
The best mysteries and thrillers rise to the level of social novels, presenting readers opportunities to confront the difficult issues we face. Penny’s novels have always been driven by this (as well as the love of family and friends). “The Madness of Crowds” may be one of Penny’s darkest works, but we can still find comfort in the natural beauty of Three Pines and the quirky residents we would love to have as our neighbors.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.
The Madness of Crowds
By Louise Penny
Minotaur. 448 pp. $26.99
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