LOUISE PENNY’S

Series Re-Read: The Madness of Crowds

INTRODUCTION BY ALLISON ZIEGLER

In October of 2013, as I was preparing to interview with the publisher of Minotaur Books for my very first job after graduating college, I picked up a recent Minotaur release: How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny. I had never heard of Louise Penny, but I fell in love with her writing, with Armand Gamache, and with the town of Three Pines. Luckily, I also got the job.

In my first few days of work, I received an email from Louise Penny herself, a kind email introducing herself and welcoming me to the family. As a member of that family for over eight years now, I’ve not only read every book Louise has published (most of them more than once!), but in working with Louise, I’ve had the opportunity to experience in person the warmth and wit she infuses into her novels.

The Madness of Crowds was originally published in September 2021, in the middle of the pandemic – which meant that, like All the Devils Are Here before it, all the work that goes into marketing a book was done remotely. But while All the Devils whisked us across the world to the City of Lights, The Madness of Crowds was a long-awaited return home. Working with Louise and the rest of the team on this book was an escape from the confines of my small Manhattan apartment, into the Bistro with friends and family and a warm cup of hot chocolate.

The Madness of Crowds is about many things – the effects of a pandemic on society, for one – but for me, it’s mostly about family.  How to find it in the most unexpected of places. The secrets we keep from each other. And how far we’d go to protect those we love.  

Before we jump right into the recap, a quick note that spoilers lie ahead. If you haven’t finished reading The Madness of Crowds, please consider leaving now and rejoining the conversation after you’ve had a chance to finish the book. So without further ado: The Gamaches are back in Three Pines and the holidays are here. The pandemic is over. And a statistics professor comes to town to give a lecture…

RECAP

Chapters 1-10: It’s winter in Three Pines, between Christmas and New Year’s; the pandemic has ended and everyone’s been vaccinated. The entire Gamache clan is together in Three Pines: Armand and Reine-Marie; Jean-Guy, Annie, and their two children; Daniel, Roslyn, and their two daughters; as well as Armand’s godfather, Stephen Horowitz.

The festivities of the holiday season are interrupted when Gamache is asked to provide security at the local gymnasium during a lecture given by a statistics professor. Why would the Chief Inspector of the Surete be asked to secure this event – sure to draw only a small crowd – rather than campus police?

After a bit of research on the statistician, Professor Abigail Robinson, Gamache finds his answer. Not simply a presentation of statistics, Professor Robinson’s thesis is instead a shocking response to the events of the pandemic, and one that’s gaining national attention online and drawing large crowds to her events. Instead of making a hundred sacrifices, like they were asked to do during the pandemic, Louise writes, they would be asked to make just one.  

Ça va bien aller, or, “all will be well”, has emerged as the movement’s slogan – the same hopeful phrase that children would write on drawings of rainbows to hang in their windows during the pandemic as a sign of hope, twisted to mean something sinister.

It’s all will be well that’s written on buttons, t-shirts, and hats as a massive crowd gathers for Professor Robinson’s lecture, filling the auditorium with both supporters and protesters. In these opening chapters of the book, Louise ramps up the tension of the event by alternating paragraphs describing the events of lecture with scenes from the days leading up to it, as Gamache tries to convince the Chancellor of the University, Colette Roberge, to cancel. At the lecture, the crowd becomes more and more volatile as Professor Robinson – her calming, rational presence a sharp contrast to her message – takes the stage, culminating in firecrackers going off, and in the chaos, shots being fired. Gamache must use his body to protect the life of this woman whose message he abhors. Jean-Guy, uncharacteristically, abandons his post.

In the aftermath, both Gamache and Jean-Guy struggle with their choices. Under Professor Robinson’s plan, children with genetic disorders, like Jean-Guy’s daughter Idola, who has Down syndrome, would never be born. How could Gamache consider sacrificing himself to save Professor Robinson? How could Jean-Guy leave his post at the door, allowing the shooter’s gun into the venue? And how can Jean-Guy, who deeply loves his daughter, ever forgive himself for thinking Professor Robinson might have a point?

In these first chapters, we’re also introduced to another special visitor in Three Pines: Haniya Daoud, an activist from Sudan who has spoken at the UN and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s in Canada to thank Myrna for being one of the first to contribute money to her human rights campaign. A young woman, but one who has endured more in her short life than most people do in their lifetimes, she has trouble connecting with the other residents of Three Pines. “I don’t think I like it here,” she says while sitting in the Bistro with Clara, Myrna, and Ruth.

Chapters 11-20: Chapter 11 opens with a command: “explain yourself.” The Chancellor and President of the Université de l’Estrie demand to know how Gamache allowed the shooting to happen. Haniya Daoud demands to know why Roslyn, Gamache’s daughter-in-law, would design expensive clothes for the children of the wealthy.

In these chapters, we learn more about the Chancellor, and her relationship with Professor Robinson – who, as it turns out, is staying in her house, along with Debbie Schneider, the professor’s childhood best friend, close confidant, and assistant. Collette, the Chancellor, was close friends with Professor Robinson’s father, who was also a statistician. It was she who booked the lecture at the gymnasium, using a pseudonym.

Gamache and Isabelle Lacoste interview Édourard Tardiff, the shooter at the lecture, with his lawyer. A woodsman and member of a gun club, Édourard tells them that he shot the gun at the lecture to stop Professor Robinson from speaking, to save others. The officers find this suspicious. Why would a member of a gun club shoot, only to intentionally miss his target? And who were his accomplices?

And then, it’s New Years’ Eve, and the entire town of Three Pines – including visitors Haniya Daoud, Abigail Robinson, and Debbie Schneider – descend upon the Auberge, the old Hadley House, for a New Years’ Eve party. It’s here we meet the Asshole Saint, Dr. Vincent Gilbert, a retired physician who lives in the woods and rarely ventures to town. We listen in on a contentious conversation between Professor Robinson and Dr. Gilbert, in which Abigail mentions Ewen Cameron, an infamous psychiatrist who worked at McGill with Dr. Gilbert. “You have no moral authority to judge me,” Professor Robinson says to Dr. Gilbert. “Don’t think I don’t know.”

As the clock strikes midnight, the party attendees stand by the bonfire, watching fireworks go off. As they start to trickle inside, a group of teenagers stumble out of the woods, shouting: they had found a body. It seems obvious that the victim would be Abigail Robinson, after all of the enemies she’s made – but it’s not, it’s Debbie Schneider, killed with a piece of firewood.

Chapters 21-30: In the aftermath of Debbie Schneider’s murder on New Years’ Eve, Gamache and Jean-Guy begin their interrogations of the party attendees, all possible suspects.

Abigail Robinson is distraught to learn that her closest confidant has been killed. In the minutes after Debbie’s body is found, they interview Abigail and Collette Roberge together, listening to their recollections of the evening. Throughout the interview, Gamache gets the impression that both women are subtly pointing their fingers at each other, trying to place suspicion on the other woman.

As Gamache looks closer at the case, he learns more about Abigail Robinson. During one of their conversations, he remembers that Debbie didn’t call her Abby, but Abby Maria. Who’s Maria? Gamache asks. While Collette had told him previously that Abby was an only child, it turns out that she did have a sister, Maria, who was severely disabled and died when she was nine years old.

Another person of interest is Vincent Gilbert – after his tense conversation with Professor Robinson at the party, he wasn’t seen around the fire with the other attendees watching the fireworks. Gamache learns that Dr. Gilbert read Professor Robinson’s report months earlier, after it was sent to him by Collette Roberge, who served with him on the board of LaPorte, an organization that helps people with Down Syndrome. Could that have been a motive for attempting to kill her? Was Professor Robinson blackmailing Dr. Gilbert, the Asshole Saint?

Perhaps most damning for Dr. Gilbert is footage from the lecture, in which he’s shown standing directly next to the gunman – and does nothing to stop him.  “It’s not that you did no harm,” says Armand. “It’s that you did nothing.”

Édouard Tardif’s brother, Alphonse, is brought in for questioning and confesses to being an accomplice in the shooting: he tells Lacoste that he hid the gun and the firecrackers. But the confession comes too easily. Remembering that Édouard had two children, they find Simon Tardif’s name on a list of servers working at the Auberge the night of the party. Simon, Édouard’s son, confesses that he was involved in the plot at the auditorium – but just to scare the professor, not hurt her. All along, Alphonse knew his nephew had been involved, and in order to protect the young man, decided to take the blame.

Meanwhile, Reine-Marie Gamache, in her role as an archivist, has taken on a consulting project helping a local family sort through boxes in their attic left by their mother who had recently passed away. In those boxes, Reine-Marie finds monkeys, over a hundred of them: monkey drawings, monkey paintings, monkey dolls. Even on her deathbed, Enid Horton etched a small monkey into her wooden bedframe.

Reine-Marie and Myrna are discussing the monkeys when Jean-Guy stops by Myrna’s bookstore on his way to the Osler Medical Library at McGill and invites them to join him. Jean-Guy is seeking answers about Dr. Gilbert, and in his file, they find letters: letters of complaint about his bedside manner, along with letters from patients and their families, thanking him for saving their lives. The Asshole Saint. And then they find documentation of Dr. Gilbert’s part-time job as a student: looking after the animals in Ewen Cameron’s lab. 

Chapters 31-40: In Enid Horton’s boxes, Reine-Marie finds a letter: a request that a bill be paid, for the services of Dr. Ewen Cameron, for twenty-three days of inpatient treatment of postpartum depression – signed by Dr. Vincent Gilbert. The obsession with monkeys was a direct result of the trauma she experienced at Dr. Gilbert’s hands, but the fact that her children never knew about it was a testament to her love. On her way to tell the family about what had happened to their mother, Reine-Marie brings along Haniya Daoud. “I’ve brought you along as proof that terrible things can happen, and we can still heal,” Reine-Marie tells her.

In these chapters, we learn more about the horrors of Ewen Cameron’s lab, how many of his victims never recovered from his “experimental treatments” of sleep deprivation, electric shock, and drugs. Enid Horton, of course, was one of those victims, as was another mother: Abigail Robinson’s. Not long after Mrs. Robinson took her own life, Abigail’s father received a similar request for payment signed by Dr. Gilbert. Abigail hadn’t come to Three Pines to meet Ruth, as she’d initially told Gamache. She’d come to Three Pines for revenge. 

As the investigation reveals more detail about Abigail Robinson’s family, and about the deaths of her father, Paul Robinson, and her sister, Maria, Gamache can’t stop thinking about the nickname Debbie called Abigail: Abby-Maria, their mother’s nickname for them, suggesting that Abby and her sister were inextricably linked. Maria’s official cause of death was listed as choking – she died choking on a peanut butter sandwich given to her by her father. How could a father of a child with special needs make such a grave error? Did he kill Maria out of frustration? Or did he do it to save Abigail from a life of caretaking, and then years later, kill himself as penance? Did he do what he felt he had to do, just like Haniya Daoud, imprisoned by child soldiers, had killed in order to escape and free other children?

There’s a term that Colette Roberge mentions several times: spurious correlations, meaning to form connections that don’t exist. Online, Gamache finds a website called Spurious Correlations – run by a man with the same name Colette uses as a pseudonym to book the gymnasium for the lecture – who credits Paul Robinson and Colette Roberge with giving him the idea. Was the chancellor trying to send a clue? Or was Gamache making yet another spurious correlation himself?

Chapters 40-47: In the final few chapters, all of the pieces begin to come together. The officers secure a search warrant for Colette Roberge’s home, where they find a copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, inscribed to Colette by Paul Robinson the day before he died: For Colette, with love and eternal gratitude, Paul. Along with the book, he also sent a letter admitting that he killed Maria and knew the moment it happened that he’d have to take his own life. In the letter, he asked that Colette look after Abigail – a promise she’s always kept.

In the letter, Paul also asks Colette to show the letter to her daughter. “She was very upset,” says Jean-Paul Roberge, Colette’s husband living with Dementia. “Not Abigail. The other one.” Debbie Schneider.

The Sûreté officers find Vincent Gilbert on his front porch, with a rifle, and follow him into his cabin where Abigail is seated in front of the fire. Colette Roberge and Haniya Daoud follow them there. In a tense confrontation, Abigail grabs the rifle and points it at Jean-Guy. “Do it,” she says, “Do it. Take the shot.”

He doesn’t. Abigail is arrested for possessing a weapon and assaulting a police officer, and eventually, maybe, charged for murdering her sister and best friend. Gamache makes an appointment with the Premier of Québec to show him the files he’s been collecting, files that would prevent any move to adopt the mandatory euthanasia idea that Abigail Robinson had planted. On the plane home to Sudan, Haniya opens a card with a rainbow on the front, signed with love from all of the villagers – once strangers, they’d become family. Ça va bien aller.

FAVORITE QUOTE:

“What’re you doing in there, Vincent?” he asked.

“What’re you doing out there, Armand?”

Earlier on in the book, Armand Gamache and Vincent Gilbert talk about a story involving Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson: After Thoreau is arrested for protesting an injustice, Emerson visits him in prison and says, ‘Henry, what are you doing in there?’ And Thoreau replies, ‘Ralph, what are you doing out there?’ I love how these two lines, at the end of the book, mirror that earlier conversation. 

CONCLUSION:

In my introduction, I mentioned that reading The Madness of Crowds for the first time, and revisiting it over and over while working on its marketing campaign, felt like a long-awaited return home. And while that’s true, I must admit that I also found Madness to be one of Louise’s most challenging novels. 

Louise never writes a character who is purely good or purely evil, but I think the people we meet in Madness take the cake for complexity. There’s Haniya Daoud, an extraordinary woman and survivor, someone who has saved countless lives – but who refuses, for a maddeningly long time, to appreciate the village and the people of Three Pines. Colette Roberge, honoring a dear friend’s final wish, is complicit in spreading a dangerous message. Dr. Vincent Gilbert, who dedicated his life to healing others, is still haunted by the gruesome beginnings of his career. And finally, there’s Abigail Robinson herself. 

In her acknowledgements, Louise writes that she began work on The Madness of Crowds in early 2020, not knowing just how similarly real-world events would start to mirror the plot of the book as the years of the pandemic dragged on. She writes that she decided to set Madness post-pandemic, among the “sorrow, the tragedies, but also the oddly rich blessings.” 

It’s those oddly rich blessings that Louise leaves us with – the hope of extinguishing a dangerous message, the promise of family, friends, and home – as we finish Madness and await the next book in the series. Ça va bien aller.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: 

  1. During the shooting at the lecture in Three Pines, Gamache uses his body to shield Abigail Robinson from danger. Gamache makes his feelings about Professor Robinson’s message clear from the beginning of the novel — so why does he save her life? If you were in his position, what would you have done?
  1. How we care for those who cannot take care of themselves is an important theme in this novel, and many of the characters are themselves in caretaker roles. For some of these characters — Jean-Guy, Colette Roberge, Paul Robinson — how do their desires to protect the ones they love influence the decisions they make?
  1. How do you feel about the relationship between Abigail Robinson and Debbie Schneider? As we learned more about their shared past, did your feelings about their friendship change? 
  2. One important setting in The Madness of Crowds is the Auberge. Formerly the haunted Old Hadley House, the Auberge has been lovingly renovated by the villagers into the luxury inn and spa it is today. What are some other examples of reinventions and second chances in this novel?
  1. For the first time in the entire series, we find the full Gamache family together in Three Pines. What did you observe about the family members’ interactions with each other? Why do you think Louise chose this book to bring everyone together?
  1. Chancellor Roberge introduces the concept of spurious correlations: connecting things that don’t actually go together. What are some examples of spurious correlations in The Madness of Crowds?
  1. Haniya Daoud and Armand Gamache, though from two very different parts of the world, agree that it’s the little things, the scents, sights, and sounds of a place, that “add up to home.” In your opinion, what are some of those little things that together form Three Pines? What about your own home?
  1. Gamache and Vincent Gilbert talk about a story involving Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson: After Thoreau is arrested for protesting an injustice, Emerson visits him in prison and says, ‘Henry, what are you doing in there?’ And Thoreau replies, ‘Ralph, what are you doing out there?’ Why does Louise include this story in the novel?
    How does it relate to the events in The Madness of Crowds?
  1. Throughout the novel, villagers refer to both Haniya Daoud and Vincent Gilbert as “Asshole Saints.” What does this label mean? Do you think either of them deserve it?
  1. In Reine-Marie’s work helping the Horton family catalogue their late mother’s belongings, she discovers hidden monkey symbolism everywhere. What begins as a quirky puzzle turns into a much darker discovery, and Reine-Marie must decide whether or not to share what she’s found with the family. Do you think she made the right decision? Why or why not?
  1. In her acknowledgements, Louise talks about setting this novel in a post-pandemic world, and how the theme of contagion reverberates throughout the book. With this in mind, discuss Abigail Robinson’s theory. Why do you think her ideas began to grow and spread in the novel? Could you see her message taking hold in our world today?
  1. Ça va bien aller. All will be well. After the events of this novel, what do you think this phrase means to Gamache? To Jean-Guy? To Haniya? What does it mean to you?
AuthorALLISON ZIEGLER is Senior Marketing Manager at St. Martin’s Press and Minotaur Books.
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