Source: Review copy
Publication: 24 August 2021 from Hodder & Stoughton
My thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for an advance copy for review
When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is asked to provide crowd control at a statistics lecture given at the Université de l’Estrie in Quebec, he is dubious. Why ask the head of homicide to provide security for what sounds like a minor, even mundane lecture?
But dangerous ideas about who deserves to live in order for society to thrive are rapidly gaining popularity, fuelled by the research of the eminent Professor Abigail Robinson. Yet for every person seduced by her theories there is another who is horrified by them. When a murder is committed days after the lecture, it’s clear that within crowds can lie madness.
To uncover the truth, Gamache must put his own feelings about the divisive Professor to one side. But with her ideas gaining ground, the line separating good and evil, right and wrong, is quickly blurring – especially when the case leads unexpectedly close to home …
You’ll most likely know this, but for me it is a brand new revelation. Louise Penny writes awesome books. To my delight, I have discovered a brand new writer (to me) whose work has engaged both my heart and my brain and not only that, but there’s an entire back catalogue of 16 books in the Inspector Gamache series to revel in.
From the outset, Louise Penny taps into one of the biggest issues of our society. The Madness of Crowds tackles huge subjects like freedom of speech and how to maintain it in an increasingly polarised society as well as whether it is OK to sacrifice the few for the gains of the many.
It is Christmas in Three Pines and Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Surete, is home in the tranquil Three Pines village in Quebec. Gamache’s family, together with the rest of the village are looking forward to celebrating a new and better year. His daughter and son in law, Jean Guy are visiting with their children. After a gruelling period working through the pandemic, Gamache and Jean Guy need the solace of family and the healing powers of Three Pines life. Gamache is working on a report that is deeply troubling to him, but such work is important and he keeps it close to his chest.
It is freezing cold and ice is everywhere but that is nothing to the reception that Armand Gamache gives to the University Chancellor when she asks him to provide asked to provide security between Christmas and New Year at Universite de l’Estrie for a visiting academic statistician, Professor Abigail Robinson.
Though annoying, it should not be a big deal, after all who’s going to venture out for a statistics lecture at that time of year? But Robinson is no ordinary lecturer statistician. The focus of this lecture is the economics of coming out of the pandemic we have just been living through.
Through a series of mathematical equations, the academic will show how economic recovery can be achieved quickly and effectively. The only trouble is, it will require implementation an abhorrent practice. Abigail Robinson’s lecture is based on a report she is preparing for the Canadian Premier and there is so much controversy surrounding it that the debate has become toxic. Gamache asks the Chancellor to think again. But she is adamant that the talk will go ahead.
Meanwhile, the Three Pines Auberge is hosting another ‘celebrity’. Haniya Daoud is a Nobel Peace Prize candidate from the Sudan. She has endured a great deal of suffering in her home country and is a prickly personality who no-one really takes to.
When Abigail Robinson’s lecture ends in disruption and near tragedy Gamache hopes that has put an end to matters. But when Abigail Robinson shows up in Three Pines with the University Chancellor on New Year’s Eve, things take a much darker turn.
Louise Penny’s novel is complex and layered and covers a great deal of philosophical and ethical debate. Three Pines, as a centred moral compass for all that is kindness is the perfect place for Gamache and his team to separate out the knotty threads of this puzzle which has its roots in the very real and horrifying scientific experiments that tarnish Canada’s past and which, it transpires, have touched more than one person in Three Pines.
The Three Pines villagers all have a part to play in this fascinating and immersive novel and Louise Penny’s characters are fascinating and though not always likeable, thoroughly engaging. Penny’s cleaver and intelligent novel explores some fundamental questions with skill and real questioning and there’s no doubt that she touches on a lot of the debates that are so very relevant today.
I loved that she uses very real events and books to highlight that what she is telling us has its roots in fact and that the fine balancing act that we have to perform when trying to work out what cowardice really means is one that separates us from barbarism.
Verdict: This is what crime novels do best. Taking a societal snapshot, analysing it and showing us the roads that could be travelled, whether as a warning or a foreshadowing we have to decide. Full of humanity and unafraid to tackle the big ethical questions this book is intelligent, twisty, provocative and enthralling. I am an instant convert to Ms Penny’s writing.
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Louise Penny is the number one New York Times bestselling author of the Inspector Gamache series, including Still Life, which won the CWA John Creasey Dagger in 2006. Recipient of virtually every existing award for crime fiction, Louise was also granted the Order of Canada in 2014 and received an honorary doctorate of literature from Carleton University and the Ordre Nationale du Québec in 2017. She lives in a small village south of Montreal.