The Madness of Crowds: A Novel (Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, 17)
“High emotion is balanced by high intellect and a high level of craft, revealing an author at the top of her game.”
For 16 volumes, Louise Penny has been developing her suite of characters—especially Chief Inspector Armand Gamache—and the quasi-mystical village of Three Pines in Quebec. Each volume pits her protagonists against deep, serious, soul-wrenching moral conflicts through police procedural mysteries. The way these characters deal with such life-and-death matters is what has endeared the series to so many readers.
In the new volume, The Madness of Crowds, Penny has hit on a plot that best melds together her characters, themes, places, and purposes. The story probably wouldn’t be quite so affecting if all its components hadn’t been so thoroughly developed over the course of the series.
To reveal the crucial plot point would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the story arises from the pandemic we have globally suffered since 2020. But it’s not a plague story set in the middle of Covid-19. Rather, it begins when the pandemic is officially over, and life goes back to normal. Kinda sorta.
The old normal can’t be restored because of the cultural and economic aftershocks catalyzed by the pandemic. To address those issues, the fictional Canadian government has commissioned a renowned statistician, Abigail Robinson, to delete emotion and politics from the recovery equation and analyze what, exactly, must be done to rebuild national solvency and stability, and prevent the same disaster from ever happening again.
Robinson’s conclusions are earth-shattering—and therein lies the plot.
Her analysis and proposed solution create “a plague of another sort, but just as deadly”—a psychological contagion that ignites social conflict leading to violence. When the story opens, it is still simmering, but Robinson lights it off on Chief Inspector Gamache’s watch.
He is drawn into the scenario by special request to arrange security for Robinson’s public presentation on his turf. Both his job and his personal belief are to identify and protect the fine line between freedom and safety.
But this situation is odd from the outset. Robinson chooses for her venue an obscure college gymnasium in an illogical location, despite her high profile and government sanction. Gamache and cohorts can’t help but wonder why there, why then, and who is behind the arrangement.
While they hope the presentation will pass outside public notice, they get what they most fear: an overpacked house with a polarized audience that explodes into violence—starting a domino chain ending in murder.
But as noted in the narrative, “Killing a person did not kill an idea,” and conflict continues to fester. Everyone in the story is touched by it on a personal level. Unnervingly, it reflects what’s going on in North America today in terms of rights, choices, government vs. individual, and so on. A scan of the daily news shows all the flashpoints gathered into this novel.
The plot’s relationship to current events is what makes the story work. No reader can escape the relevance of both surface and subterranean issues at play. At the same time, readers can understand the different viewpoints of the characters as the narrative shifts among them. The author’s storycrafting skills let us follow these shifts without stumbling. She spreads the ambiguities of moral questions from person to person, so that multiple valid perspectives are covered without pummeling readers over the head. In Penny’s world, there are no oversimplified, easy-way-out viewpoints.
The moral questions the book asks readers to grapple with create a sharp ouch for those who do. Because so many of us have experienced, or at least glimpsed, the gray areas in ourselves, it’s almost impossible to not relate to the characters. The author’s writing style compels us to do this thinking, as has always been true in the series. In The Madness of Crowds, her style suits the context better than in other volumes.
Amid all the angst and solemnity is an ironic levity: the “Asshole Saint” character. More than one of this two-faced type shows up in the story, beautifully embodying the book’s somber theme. Gamache captures their contradictions when he notes, “Correct and right were two different things. As were facts and truth.”
Penny’s literary gift is to humanize this difficult concept. And while all of her novels feel like they are driven by passion, this one especially feels like it came out of the author in one huge, inspired wave. High emotion is balanced by high intellect and a high level of craft, revealing an author at the top of her game. Don’t be surprised if she receives an award for this one.
As an aside, if you’re going to read the book, spring for the hardcover. It’s got the strongest cover of the entire series, produced with highest-quality printing, and it includes lovely, series-relevant art on the inside covers. A handsome book to keep on your shelf.
Whatever your preferred format, give this novel a read. The Madness of Crowds will make you think, make you feel—and at the same time force you guess whodunit from a group of plausible suspects, down to the very end.