Mystery Review: The Madness of Crowds

Taking it’s name from Charles Mackay’s classic study of crowd psychology, Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, Louise Penny’s most recent mystery takes us back to Three Pines and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as he first protects a controversial statistician and then must investigate a murder following her visit.

Abigail Robinson is a visiting Professor of Statistics ready to give a lecture at a nearby university. However, her talk is cut short by gun fire. Why? One reason is certainly the content of Robinson’s lecture: forced euthanasia for the infirm and the elderly. One thing a worldwide pandemic proved, at least in Robinson’s eyes, was that the death of the sick and aged saved the country of Canada a lot of money. What if the nation took the tragedy as a model of public health moving forward? What if unavoidable death became mandatory? The slogan that gave so many hope during the pandemic, ├ža va bien aller, all shall be well, soon becomes a sinister mantra. If we kill all who aren’t well, then all who remain shall be well.

Inspector Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team soon uncover an intricate web of deceit, torture, and murder, and it seems that half of Three Pines is involved or at least knows a small piece of the puzzle.

While both engaging and timely (the spurious correlations made by Robinson are some of the very same we’ve heard about the pandemic in general), the plot does tend toward the overly complex at times. I have often wondered if contemporary mysteries have a convolution problem, as if the only way contemporary mystery writers can create an unsolvable crime is to add rope after rope, coil after coil, until they have a proverbial Gordian knot. I won’t give away the resolution of The Madness of Crowds, but suffice it to say, it requires a lot of people to be guilty of a lot of tangentially related things. Rather than an elegant reveal and a motive we should’ve seen from the beginning, we end with Gamache untying a number of threads I wasn’t sure should’ve been tied together in the first place. I had the right suspect fairly early on, but the motive took a lot of uncovering to understand.

That being said, I enjoy Gamache and the folks of Three Pines, and Penny did provide a good meditation on our times. One thing the pandemic has proved, to me at least, is that the pro-life movement continues to struggle toward consistency. With this mystery, Penny offers an interesting take on the concept.

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