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The Madness of Crowds:
A Novel
by louise penny
minotaur books, 436 pages, $28.99

This long but quick-to-read novel by the Canadian, bestselling author Louise Penny takes place in a post-pandemic world, and is set in her customary, slightly fictional Quebec village of Three Pines. A notorious professor of statistics comes to the village to argue that the COVID pandemic had an unexpected benefit: A large number of elderly and vulnerable people died. While tragic, she argues that these deaths actually helped in many ways. Government spending on healthcare, for instance, has become more manageable.

I was recently introduced to this author’s work while visiting Canadian friends. Since the introduction of voluntary euthanasia in Canada—a 2015 decree of their Supreme Court declared euthanasia a human right—there have been stories that people in nursing homes have received substandard care and suffered neglect because, after all, they have an alternative now. My hosts, all Anglicans involved in their local parishes, told me how euthanasia’s availability was wounding the social fabric and, indeed, the lives of individuals left behind. They had other anecdotal evidence; for instance, a young adult mentioned how the price of homes was bound to become more affordable in the coming few decades as the Boomers are eased out the door.

So I was interested in Penny’s novel: Armand Gamache, the police crime investigator and protagonist of the novel, remembers visiting a nursing home in the winter. The staff had simply all left and locked the doors. The patients had died agonizingly. I shan’t repeat the details that he saw; it is enough that they are on his brain.

Penny is not a tractarian; this novel is not an argument disguised as fiction. It is a complex story that involves psychological depths, hidden truths, and the virtue of listening before rushing to judgment. It covers Down syndrome and dementia. It is not prudish: There is a duck whose favorite four-letter word rhymes with “duck,” and whose human companion delights in lifting the middle finger. Penny’s complexities take us to the depths where, as Eliot put it, we do the right thing for the wrong reason, and she shows that, when the law is broken for what is taken to be a morally good reason, it is still necessary for agents of the law to issue an arrest.

Of particular interest are the arguments characters level against the statistics professor. Her case is statistically sound. Looking at what happened in the pandemic, she warns against the future disaster awaiting society as more and more people need expensive care as they approach death. She suggests that involuntary euthanasia may be a necessary solution. She also proposes, for similar reasons, mandatory abortion of genetically deficient fetuses.

Is there a significant difference between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia? Yes, say many of the characters. Others wonder, however, if it is but one more step down a road already long-traveled. In this novel’s telling, a significant moment along that road came decades earlier when some depressed patients were made unknowing participants in experiments that left them psychologically broken. (The case has basis in fact.) The reader is left to ponder whether the move from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia would be radically new, given the history. One finds plenty of material to contemplate and no pat answers.

Although grateful for Penny’s sensitivities to these issues, a reader can still wish the novel were better, beginning with its prose style, which is readily mockable. Sentence fragments. Further thoughts. A qualification. A sense that we really don’t need verbs. Just dabs of words on this canvas.

Penny can be psychologically profound. She creates a brilliant internal life for Gamache in which his self-honesty is challenged; we also see his awesome ability to sit silently as persons he is questioning begin to recognize their true feelings and thoughts. Penny is attuned to the wisdom contained in emotions, which we also find other characters realizing for themselves. It may be that, in the end, wickedness comes about when human beings close off their feelings and try to live by reason alone. Another open question of the novel is then: Is that true? 

Despite its flaws, Penny’s novel is ultimately a book of fundamental human goodness. It encourages us to look at a child, as happens at a significant New Year’s Eve moment, and not see “Down syndrome,” but a person with a name—a person given for us to love.

Victor Lee Austin is Theologian-in-residence of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. His latest book is A Post-Covid Catechesis.

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