The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny – Review
By Sandra Callard
The latest of Louise Penny’s series of books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is set in Quebec, Canada, complete with shivery descriptions of the harsh winter where homes are completely made to withstand the cold and most people, amazingly, still have open fires. The smalltown where the Chief Inspector lives has a close knit community and Penny’s text brings it startlingly into graphic life.
Gamache is puzzled when he is ordered to oversee a lecture at the university, but when he discovers the topic of the lecture he understands. Professor Abigail Watson is in favour of euthanasia for the elderly, for those who have untreatable illnesses, and also for those with mental illness or any sort of deformity. As Chief Inspector Gamache has a baby granddaughter who fits into this list, he is horrified, but will do his job to keep the peace.
When the assistant to the Professor is found murdered, Gamache has one of his most difficult cases on his hands. Why kill the assistant and not the leader of this abhorrent concept? The author, however, manages to make the Professor sound like a normal and likeable person and Gamache is astounded to find that she has a strong following and that he, remarkably, quite likes her.
The Madness of Crowds is wordy, with a huge cast of characters which are sometimes difficult to identify without some thought, although they are all rounded and interesting. Gamache stands out as a clever and humane detective who has a close and loving family.
By the end of the book we know every character in Gamache’s family and his surrounding neighbourhood and their likes and dislikes. We are even introduced to a Sudanese woman, a survivor of vicious brutality and a possible receiver of the next Nobel Prize. It is beautifully written and every scene is razor tight and full of feeling, but there is an excess of verbiage from peripheral characters who are on the very edge of the story.
The story itself seesaws quite a bit and contains many sections which do not seem to have anything pertinent to add to the story and without anything at all regarding the hunt for the killer. Gamache is very much into personalities, their lives, their thoughts and their ideas and too many parts of the book depart completely from the crime and dwell on the accomplishments, attitudes and conduct of the people who enter his periphery.
Quebec, having been colonised by the French, seems to be very much half and half as far as speech goes. There are very few pages which do not contain bits of French words which have become absorbed into the Canadian language, and can be, by turn, attractive, amusing or boring.
The book also has the longest and most complicated denouement of any murder mystery I have ever read. It is almost like another book in itself as many people are interviewed again and many new scenarios are wafted about. Gamache is obviously on to something but it takes so much time to get there that in the end I almost didn’t care who the murderer was.
This is a book of great ideas and wonderful characters. I only wished getting to its point didn’t take such a meanderingly long time.
‘The Madness of Crowds’ by Louise Penny is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99 hardback