The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

I am a massive fan of Louise Penny and have read all her books. I love her books for:

  • the village Three Pines which you only seem to find if you are lost,
  • the warmth and tolerance of the inhabitants for each other,
  • the warmth of the houses in winter and the golden that shines out of them,
  • the food in Gabri and Oliver’s bistro – hot chocolate, lemon meringue pie, rich stews and soups, cheeses and baguettes
  • the depiction of family, in particular Chief Inspector Gamache’s family, where flaws are understood
  • the creative talents in the village – artist, Clara, and poet, Ruth

But this is an author who also shows you that despite all this warm, idealistic life, evil is never far away with The Madness of Crowds being no different in this respect. I often describe this author and her books as an iron fist in a velvet glove.

I have always thought that Penny’s books were timeless but this one is a bit more rooted because it is set after the first series of lockdowns and vaccinations when everything opens up again (obviously not taking into account Omicron!)

There are so many issues in this book such as freedom of speech, euthanasia, state conducted experiments, traumatised individuals and winning the Nobel peace prize, experimenting on humans, suicide, death of a child and what it means to be a parent that there is almost too much. I have to say that it is well-handled and all tied together neatly at the end but I did wonder if there wasn’t just a little too much.

A lecturer, Abigail Robinson, is invited to speak at a small university near to Three Pines but needs police protection. It turns out that Abigail’s message is a controversial one, euthanasia, and crowds turn up from all over the place to hear her, both for and against, and an attempt is made on her life.

She then attends a New Year’s Eve party uninvited where her best friend is killed out in the woods and in order to solve this mystery, the death of Abigail’s sister 30 years ago must be solved first. But of course there are lots of emotions and secrets to be revealed during this time, not least the fact that Jean-Guy and his wife’s child, Idola, has been born with Down’s Syndrome and so would class as one of the groups to be euthanised to ensure that there are enough resources available for the rest of the population during times of crisis.

The other big issue is Universities and freedom of speech. Who is going to stand up and say, No? Should people be allowed to say whatever they want? What is the difference between being correct and morally right? As is said in the book, you can kill a person but you can’t kill an idea and the fact is that social media can fan the flames of the fire, ensuring the idea reaches a much wider group of people can make an idea even more dangerous. The book also considers the vulnerability of people after a crisis such as a pandemic and how answers to life’s difficult questions can be looked for in some dark places.

This is very much a book of its time but it isn’t my favourite Gamache title. If you haven’t read this series before, try any of them from 1-16 before reading this one.

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