The Madness of Crowds
If it’s August, it must be time for the annual Inspector Gamache mystery by Louise Penny. It’s amazing to me that she can keep turning one out every year, no matter what. A few times I feel like the series has suffered, but mostly they are intricately plotted, with intelligent dialogue, in-depth philosophy, and compelling characters. This one was no exception, although there were a few moments while reading it that I wanted to say, Where is your editor in all of this?
The setting is once again the village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, Quebec (the previous book in the series occurred while the Gamaches and Beauvoirs were on a visit to Paris), and it is post-covid. I’m sure that when Penny wrote it, she anticipated a legitimate post-covid world in which everyone was going about their normal lives again instead of one plagued by variants that threaten to keep us in masks and in isolation for yet another season (or year). But at the heart of her plot is a moral issue that has sprung to life partially as a result of the medical shortages and triage of the worst days of the epidemic, and it’s dark.
Never assay a Penny mystery expecting it to be an ordinary police procedural. She incorporates not only philosophy and politics, but also art and poetry, and while the police work is meticulous, the feelings and intuitions of the officers involved (with Gamache at their head) are always as essential as are the bare facts of the case. One of the things I enjoy about Penny is that she inserts real poems and quotes and books into her fictional works; the title of this one is based on a book by Charles Mackay, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She immediately made me want to seek it out.
This book uses its characters and story to explore such social issues as disinformation and propaganda, xenophobia, and eugenics. I feel like her pivotal character, Professor Abigail Robinson, is consciously modeled on some of the charismatic but wildly morally skewed characters who have appeared as players in the recent American story, in the way that she divides the culture in two over the validity of her theories with the sheer strength of personality and certitude.
One Goodreads reviewer opines that this novel is “the most allegorical of Louise Penny’s work. The actual murder is incidental to the plot, serving only as a springboard to examine morality on both personal and societal levels.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but there is occasionally an arms-length feel to the crime they are supposed to be solving, as opposed to the debate they are constantly having.
Gamache is asked to provide security at a lecture being given by a professor of statistics. Given the presumably dry content of a speech on statistical analysis and the fact that it’s taking place at an obscure university auditorium in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Gamache is puzzled as to why anyone would approach the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec to oversee this task; but then he does a little research on the likely content of the professor’s speech and immediately musters a far bigger response than anyone would expect at what should be an incidental, poorly attended event. More people show up than the venue can accommodate, and Gamache has a volatile and angry crowd on his hands as the professor steps up to speak.
One thing that bothered me about this book is how long it takes to reveal the specific contents of the professor’s government-solicited (but later repudiated) report on which her call for action is based. Another was how long it took to get to the actual murder, using some “foreplay” crime to keep the reader going until we arrive. And a third was the resolution of the mystery: There were multiple individuals who could have been the culprit, and none of them stands out for long, as facts are discovered that exonerate each one, only to raise more doubts about the others and then circle back around again. It felt like Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste spent an aeon going over basically similar theories for why each person was or could be the murderer, and they all made sense! This is one of the few of her books that didn’t have that “Ahah!” moment in it when the unexpected solution arises and proves to be the truth. I think this is probably because Penny wanted the social commentary, rather than the murder, to be the star of the show…but it made the actual mystery a long, drawn-out process.
With all this caveating (is that a word?), I was still thoroughly engaged by and absorbed in the story. We are reunited with familiar villagers, get to know others who haven’t been prominent before, and are also introduced to a variety of strangers, each of whom brings their own twist to the plot. The physical details are, as usual, spot-on for a winter interlude in coldest Canada, and made me want to drink hot chocolate even in 100-degree Los Angeles! (I sometimes wish that her annual pub-date was in February, so I could be in accord with her characters as they snuggle up with comfort food and beverages around the fire.) And the moral dilemma around which the entire plot is wrapped is likewise riveting, albeit deeply disturbing.
I made a comment in my review of A Better Man (two books back) about a stylistic shift I saw taking place in Penny’s writing structure and, while I noticed that it mostly disappeared again in All the Devils Are Here, it’s back in this book. She does this short-phrase, incomplete-sentence thing that can occasionally work as a device to emphasize something, but is less pleasing when it constantly occurs. Perhaps she (or her editor) will see this comment, here or elsewhere and, taking it to heart, go back to the more fluid literary construct of yore. But even with that, I still give the book four stars out of five.