The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (Mystery / Literary fiction)

Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4.5/5

Chief Inspector Gamache is asked to provide security for a statistics lecturer at an abruptly scheduled speaking engagement between Christmas and New Years. But this isn’t just any lecturer. Abigail Robinson is drawing large crowds with her message of a simple solution to all the misery and pending economic collapse threatening the post-Covid world. It is a simple message (clothed in psuedo-compassionate language): just kill all of the weak and defective people soaking up the majority of the world’s resources.

The topic is masterfully handled. There is an attempt on Robinson’s life at the lecture, and later there is an actual murder to solve, but the backdrop of the plot is the way an unpopular message can be skillfully turned into a popular delusion. The “delusion” (I believe) is that the proposal would be a mercy and a kindness to everyone, including those who are to be euthanized. The philosophical discussion takes place throughout the book as different characters struggle with the concepts of burden, empathy, and fear in their own personal lives. Robinson is friendly, soft spoken and earnest. She knows how to paint the terrifying picture and then soothe it with easy solutions, tempering the calls for murder with the promise of compassion and pity and “all will be well.”

As always, Penny’s crime fiction is impossible to put down. Her writing is on a par with good literary fiction, her plots twisted and surprising, and of course it’s difficult to not be in love with all the characters we’ve come to know throughout the previous 16 books (an interesting new character is introduced — an “Asshole Saint” in the form of a curt woman from the Sudan who is up for the Nobel Peace Prize).

There have been a few recent Penny books that I haven’t loved, but this isn’t one of them. I’m already waiting for number 18 …

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.