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.

A Better Man by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
The latest installment of the beloved Inspector Gamache series is a bit disappointing, to be honest. I loved every one of her books until Glass Houses which I thought was terrible. After that came Kingdom of the Blind which was gratifyingly back to Penny’s typical level of excellence. Unfortunately, A Better Man appears to be a regression. It’s a decent story — Gamache and crew try to find a missing, frequently abused, woman and, eventually, identify her murderer. In the background is the threat of an every one-hundred-years flood, Gamache’s demotion to Head of Homicide after a nine month suspension, and the potential clash between Gamache and Beauvoir for the three overlapping weeks where they both wear the same title. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written, repetitive, and trite.

The book is overly emotional — many pages are devoted to Gamache and Beauvoir imagining their own feelings had it been their daughter who had been abused and eventually murdered. And while I love Gamache’s calm, steady, and kind manner, I swear that word kindness was presented multiple times on each page. It was as though Penny didn’t trust her readers to get the message and felt she had to repeat it over and over again. Or maybe she just didn’t have enough plot to fill the pages.

It was not a hard book to read — her writing style is clean and the plot twists were interesting. There were a few scenes in Three Pines which I always enjoy, but even there I think her characters have run their course — there is nothing new, and watching all of the hand wringing has become boring.

She also included a fairly shallow portrayal of a woman named Dominica Oddly — an all-powerful online art critic who, using her extremely popular online presence, could build or destroy artists with a single post. Oddly’s description was “wild black woman in dreadlocks and combat boots,” but she was given no further depth. This was combined with some plot around the dangers of social media with two tweet storms causing real pain for two of the characters. I feel like Penny is trying to update her fictional world but doesn’t have enough real understanding of it herself to give the characters the kind of depth she has been so successful with.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series — the 14th)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Overall reading pleasure: 5/5

I’m (very, very) happy to say that this latest Inspector Gamache mystery is back to the high standards of the first 12. I thought the last book — Glass Houses — was incredibly disappointing.

This installment merges two stories: Gamache, Myrna, and a Dr. Seussian builder named Benedict are named as liquidators (think executors) of Bertha Baumgartner’s estate — a woman none of them knows. The will is odd, to say the least, and the almost immediate murder of one of the beneficiaries adds some definite tension! At the same time, a temporarily suspended Gamache is desperately trying to track down the last bit of carfentanil that he had to let slip in order to bust the drug ring in the last book. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than Fentanyl, itself 100 times more potent than Heroin.

This is not your typical mystery series — it’s character driven but they aren’t just any characters. They are the idealized versions of the people you wish would populate your life. None of them are average or really have any annoying faults at all (though some do pretend). They are smart, capable, witty, loving, interesting, and always do and say the exact right things at the right time. In these books, kindness, friendship, love, and hope manage to take on the grit and grime of crime on a massive scale and actually win. Sure, it’s just a fairy tale … but such a nice one!

While I have a few issues with the plot, this is simply a book that is impossible to put down. The writing is succinct with great dialog and beautifully distilled principles, descriptions, and action. Character driven with lots of intriguing psychological and philosophical driving forces.

As an aside, Ruth, the longstanding and crotchety old poet, has been getting the credit for the acronym FINE (“F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”) — I just realized that the true credit goes to an Aerosmith song from 1989!

A few quotes I liked:
About a man with dementia: “For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart”

“Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.”

“Four statements lead to wisdom: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” (Gamache’s favorite — repeated in most of the books)

Poetry line: “Who hurt you once so far beyond repair / that you would greet each overture with curling lip.”