A near-future dystopian novel by a Canadian woman author: any guesses who the author is?

No, it’s not Margaret Atwood.

We’re talking about The Madness of Crowds, by Louise Penny. It’s not nearly as dystopian as Atwood’s vision, but it still nudges us in that direction.

This is the newest (#17) novel in the Armand Gamache series, and it all takes place in the comforting environs of Three Pines, so how dystopian can it be? Well, it’s more by implication than anything else. Actually, if you’re familiar with this series, you know that things are always darker than they at first appear to be: these novels are definitely not cozies, and there’s always at least a small amount of violence to balance the calm of southeastern Quebec. I highly recommend this entire series, unless you insist on escapism; you won’t escape into eternal cheeriness here, but you will find a thoughtful mystery that brings some comfort some of the time. Check out my posts of September 14, 2014; September 2, 2018; February 1, 2020; and June 16, 2021.

I have to say that I was a bit jarred by the opening page:

…A year ago a gathering of this sort would have not only been unthinkable, it would have been illegal. They’d have broken it up and gotten everyone tested. But thanks to the vaccines, they no longer had to worry about the spread of a deadly virus…

“OK,” I said to Vincent (one of our four cats), who was helping me read, as he often does. “What do we have here? Penny writes mysteries, not science fiction—but this is clearly set some time in the future. Well, she probably wrote it in early 2020 and was just being optimistic about the future.”

No, it turned out that that wasn’t quite it.

Yes, of course there is always considerable lag time between writing and publishing, but “optimistic” isn’t quite the right word. The story does take place in the very near future, probably late 2022—and we know now that the delta variant and anti-vaxxers and other factors mean that COVID is far from over and that that will still be true a year from now. But this is fiction, and the first two pages present a cheery picture of returning to normality, especially if you’ve read earlier books in the series.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that the cheery picture doesn’t last. The issues aren’t medical, however; they are sociological and political. The story contains ethical issues all over the place, ranging from dealing with dementia to crimes against humanity, from euthanasia to eugenics. Moral dilemmas abound. But they’re always part of the narrative, never presented didactically.

An issue I sometimes have when reading fiction is distinguishing three different kinds of references to apparently real-life events: those that are truly real, those that are made up by the author out of whole cloth, and those that are based on reality but modified slightly or significantly. In this case there are surprisingly many in the first category: references to real events. COVID is of course obvious, as is the crisis in Sudan (read the book!), but there is also a lot about Ewen Cameron, who had been completely unknown to me but shouldn’t have been; there are several references to the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is of course the source of the title of the novel and which I have read and probably own a copy of; there are also several references to The 100th Monkey Effect, which I was convinced Penny had made up but turns out to be real (although it is been debunked, so it’s “real” only in the sense that there really is such a hypothesis); Tyler Vigen’s name appears in three places in this story, and although I didn’t recall the name I do know his very real website: Spurious Correlations, where you can learn how the divorce rate in Maine correlates with the per-capita consumption of margarine and other fun facts. Correlation is not causation.

Finally, after reading dozens of references over the years by various people who all claim that “First, do no harm” is in Hippocratic Oath—which it most certainly isn’t, and you can look it up—I was delighted to see that Penny has it right and explicitly says that it is not in the Hippocratic Oath. It’s always good to see truth winning, even in a work of fiction.

Finally, I was telling the truth at the top of this post when I labeled The Madness of Crowds “the newest (#17) novel in the Armand Gamache series,” but this book is not Penny’s newest novel. State of Terror, which she co-wrote with Hillary Rodham Clinton, was just published! And I do mean “just”: it was published yesterday! So stay tuned…

Categories: Books