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THE MADNESS OF CROWDS by Louise Penny: Book Review

The COVID pandemic is over, at least in Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, but the frenzy it has provoked in many places is clearly still around.

Virtually everyone in Québec has been vaccinated against the virus, and things are almost back to normal.  So much so that when Abigail Robinson, a professor of statistics, wants to give a lecture at a small local university, there appears to be no reason to deny her.  Except that her talk has the potential to cause a riot.

Citing freedom of speech, the university’s chancellor, Collette Roberge, refuses to stop the presentation.  Instead, she asks Inspector Armand Gamache, chief of homicide of the Sûreté du Québec, to provide the security for the event.  Having viewed videos of Dr. Robinson’s previous lectures, they both know their incendiary nature, but the chancellor is steadfast in her rejection of Armand’s plea to rescind the invitation, despite the possibility of violence.

Since Gamache doesn’t have the authority to cancel the talk, all he and his officers can do is provide as much security as possible.  In truth neither Armand nor Collette expects many people to attend, given that it’s the Christmas holiday and Professor Robinson’s talk will be in English in the French-speaking province.  But the overflow crowd pushing its way into the university’s gymnasium proves the two of them wrong, and it becomes obvious that people on both sides of the question have come prepared to make their voices heard.

Abigail Robinson’s trademark phrase, Ça va bien aller (All will be well), is a promise that the future holds better times, that the economy will recover, that there will never again be a shortage of either health care facilities or the financial ability to help all.  Well, almost all.

If, and this is the big if, the elderly, the incurably ill, and the severely handicapped are helped to their deaths by involuntary euthanasia, a.k.a mercy killing, then all will be well for everyone else.  “If the pandemic has taught us anything,” she tells the crowd, “it’s that not everyone can be saved.  Sacrifices must be made.”

Professor Robinson begins her speech, and as she says the pivotal line, “It’s called—” three explosions rip through the air.  In the first few seconds after the bangs are heard, the crowd starts to stampede toward the exits, pausing only after Gamache repeatedly says in English and French that the noises were firecrackers.  Isabelle Lacoste, a member of Gamache’s staff, holds up the string of firecrackers and people start to relax and return to their seats.  Until another loud bang is heard, and this time it’s a gunshot.

Louise Penny has written an incredibly timely and fascinating novel.  She obviously began writing during the pandemic, and when the novel was completed, COVID appeared to be under control.  But, as we all know, that was before the Delta variant became widespread, leading to more illness and death, as well as more false information about the efficacy of and need for vaccines, social distancing, and masking.

As of this writing, every newspaper is filled with information/mis-information about vaccines and masks and people’s fear of what could be next.  The Madness of Crowds is a work of fiction, but it is scarily close to what could happen/is happening around the world.

You can read more about Louise Penny at this website. 

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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