After The Cataclysm:
Many writers have found ways to mention the pandemic in their books that came out during the lockdown months. A lot of them wrote while staying indoors to beat the virus—some may even have found the forced isolation conducive to creativity.
Louise Penny’s The Madness Of Crowds flash forwards a little to the time when the pandemic has ended, but left devastation and fear in its wake. What if, at a time like this, someone offers a way out of the financial and emotional morass; and what if that solution is morally repugnant?
In her 17th Inspector Armand Gamache novel, Penny’s detective protagonist, surrounded by a loving family and devoted friends living in the fictional, idyllic village of Three Pines, near Quebec, is forced to deal with the aftermath of pandemic when it hits them in the form of a doomsday prophet, Dr. Abigail Robinson, who uses statistics to propound mandatory euthanasia and eugenics to preserve resources severely depleted during the pandemic. Her controversial views generate as much outrage as support for what amounts to mass murder of the aged, the ill, the handicapped and the unborn fetuses with possible birth defects. She has subverted the happy phrase ca va bien aller – all will be well to suit her agenda.
When she is invited to lecture at a small local university, and Gamache assigned to protect her, there is trouble. First there is an attack on her, and later her assistant is murdered.
Gamache finds her views abhorrent, but duty calls for solving the case, which goes back into the past, and involves a reclusive scientist, Vincent Gilbert, once known for his brilliant research, now living in solitude in a forest cabin. Hovering over his reputation is his connection to real-life Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, who worked at Montreal’s McGill University and elsewhere in the 1950s and ’60s on the MKUltra project, conducting horrible mind experiments by torturing unsuspecting patients in the name of treatment.
Into the incendiary mix, are added sharp-tongued Sudanese human-rights activist, Haniya Daoud and the secretive Colette Roberge, chancellor of university, who invited Robinson to speak on campus. It turns out she was friends with Robinson’s father and has a history with the family. All three of them have motive to kill Robinson.
Robinson’s theory cuts too close to Gamache’s home, since his granddaughter was born with Down Syndrome (in Penny’s last book, All The Devil’s are here, Gamache’s daughter Annie and son-in-law plus second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, decided to go ahead with the pregnancy after a warning from pre-natal test results).
The dilemma Gamache goes through and his problems with Robinson are captured with Penny’s typical acuity.
“Fortunately,” she (Robinson) says, “numbers don’t have feelings.”
“No,” Gamache responds, “but the mathematician, the statistician, does…. as do homicide investigators…. The same set of facts can lead us to different conclusions. Our interpretation of facts can depend on our experiences … on what we want the facts to say.”
It is a solemn book with convoluted plotting, and there’s too much of characters looking at one another and intuit what they are thinking, but the denizens of Three Pines are beloved to readers by now—Gamache’s wife, Riene-Marie, bookstore owner Myrna, artist Clara, Oliver and Gabri, a gay couple who own the bistro; and the eccentric poet Ruth, whose constant companion is Rosa, her ill-tempered duck.
The Madness Of Crowds makes the reader ponder over how easy it is to tip public opinion towards undesirable moral choices.
The Madness Of Crowds
By Louise Penny