The Madness of Crowds (Chief Inspector Gamache #17), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2021.
Summary: A Christmas assignment to provide security for a professor proposing mercy killing leads to a murder investigation in Three Pines.
It began with a request to provide security for a speech at a nearby university at an old gym over the Christmas holidays.. It seems like something far beneath the pay grade of Gamache until he investigates the speaker. Abigail Robinson is a polished academic, comfortable with statistics who speaks with calm conviction. She had submitted a report to the Canadian government about pandemic deaths that concluded with a startling proposal. The havoc wrought on the economy meant that the government couldn’t continue to support the elderly and others with disabilities. The answer was mercy killing. And she assures her audiences with this familiar tag line, “All will be well” or in Quebec, “ça va bien aller.” Her message cuts like a sword, attracting a growing social media following of those who embrace her ideas and a contingent of those outraged that such a thing might even be considered.
Gamache recognizes the danger such an event represents. He knows he cannot legally stop her but pleads that the university cancel the event. Citing free speech, they refuse. A huge and volatile crowd of all ages arrives and despite security, an attempt is made on her life. Only Gamache’s reaction saves her…and he wonders if he should have.
The professor’s ideas reach deeply into Gamache’s circle. His granddaughter Idola, Jean Guy’s daughter, is a Downs Syndrome child. She would be a candidate for mercy killing. Both Gamache and Beauvoir struggle not only with the inherent moral issue Professor Robinson’s ideas raise, but the reality that they could not let this happen to Idola, even as they also understand the reality of the challenges of care for a special needs child.
Meanwhile, a Nobel prize nominee, Haniya Daoud, is visiting Three Pines, the guest of Myrna, who was one of the first to support her human rights organization in Canada. She relentlessly works to free children and women in bondage in South Sudan. She’s fierce, having killed her own drunken captor to escape, and killing others to free captive children. Her face bears the physical scars of her captivity. There are other scars that go deeper, including a hatred for law enforcement. Having heard about Abigail Robinson, whose ideas are against all she stands for, she calls Gamache a coward for protecting her.
While Gamache’s team investigates the murder attempt, which involved more than the person apprehended, Professor Robinson and her assistant Debbie Schneider are given protection but asked not to leave Chancellor Collette Roberge’s home. Roberge had been a mentor to Abigail Robinson after her father’s death and was responsible for the invitation to speak. On New Year’s Eve, Roberge was invited to a gathering at the Hadley House, now the Auberge, and she brings Abigail and Debbie along. Vincent Gilbert, “the Asshole Saint” we’ve encountered in earlier volumes is there. There is an uncomfortable encounter when Gilbert challenges the morality of what Robinson is proposing and she brings up the name of Ewan Cameron, whose unethical psychological experiments were used by the CIA in interrogations, that left a trail of human wreckage that will become important to the plot. We learn later that Gilbert was a lowly lab assistant caring for animals who knew what was happening and did nothing, a secret he’d protected for years, now exposed.
The New Year’s celebration occurs. Kids light sparklers, there is a huge fireworks display, couples kiss, teens go off in the woods to drink. Just before midnight, Debbie and Collette step outside. Minutes later, as Billy Williams is extinguishing the bonfire, kids race out of the woods, reporting a body laying in the snow. Gamache fears it is Robinson, but when the crime scene investigators arrive, it is discovered to be Debbie Schneider, dead from blunt force trauma from a piece of firewood. They face two questions. Did the killer mistake her for Abigail or was she the target? And who is the killer? Vincent Gilbert? Collette Roberge? Abigail Robinson herself? The son of the man arrested for the gym incident, who was working the party? Or maybe Haniya Daoud, who has killed before?
Penney raises important questions. How has the pandemic changed us? Has the cavalier disregard for elder lives in care settings on the part of some, opened the door to consider measures like mercy killing that were once off the table? Are the elderly and those with disabilities a “drag” on the economy and a burden to society we cannot afford? On what basis will we defend their right to life? And what price are we willing to pay for our safety? Ewan Cameron was not a fictional character. Unsuspecting patients, often women suffering post-partum depression, were victims of his CIA research which used curare, LSD, electroconvulsive shock, and sensory deprivation. The CIA continues to use the fruits of his research in interrogations.
Gamache has to wrestle with these issues as he prepares his own report on the horrors he witnessed in care facilities during the pandemic. And Beauvoir will confront these in a very different way in the climactic scene of the novel. I also find myself wondering if we’ve seen the last of Haniya Daoud. Louise Penny is still writing!