The annual release of a new Louise Penny Three Pines mystery is a cause for celebration for her many fans, myself included. So I was very pleased to be able talk to her about THE MADNESS OF CROWDS for the August/September issue of AudioFile Magazine. Read my interview below. And if you haven't yet heard our podcast interview with narrator Robert Bathurst, you have a treat in store.
Louise Penny says that plotting her bestselling mysteries about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sûreté is a balancing act. “I know where the story is going, but I don’t want to hold my characters so firmly to the outline that they can’t breathe. As a result, there are always surprises.” For example, in the first draft of her newest book, THE MADNESS OF CROWDS, Penny didn’t refer to the COVID-19 pandemic until two-thirds of the way through. “I thought it would be the last thing people would want to hear about after living through so much sadness,” she explains during a Canada-Maine Zoom visit. “But then I realized that my characters’ lives were as affected by the virus as we all have been. So, by the second draft, I mentioned it on page 1!”
Set in a post-pandemic present—“a time of healing,” says Penny—the audiobook begins with Chief Inspector Gamache struggling to guard a scientist whose government-sponsored study has devolved into a mash-up of misinterpreted statistics and eugenics beliefs. When the Canadian government disassociates itself from the findings, the scientist goes public with her proposal for mandatory euthanasia of the disabled and elderly. Her speeches draw huge and fervent crowds. Soon, someone dies. “The concept dovetailed perfectly with the idea of a virus,” explains Penny. “Ideas and diseases both spread from person to person. They gain traction as they infect the population.”
The author of 18 novels about Gamache and his colleagues, family, and friends, Penny says that her books, which are “one ongoing story,” are not really about murder. “Instead, murder is a launching point to explore the issues that Gamache and others struggle with.”
In this case, the issue is eugenics coupled with mandatory euthanasia of the elderly or infirm. “The Nazis used eugenics in ways that are so clearly wrong,” says Penny. “But what about our increasing tendency to abort fetuses that have identifiable disabilities, such as Down syndrome? What about the animals we raise for experimentation? And our elderly or frail relatives? During a time of illness, for example, should they be abandoned or forced to die while we save the young and healthy?” Penny’s husband Dr. Michael Whitehead, the model for Armand Gamache, was 82 in 2016 when he died peacefully at home, having lived for several years with dementia. In contrast, many seniors died of neglect and abandonment in Canadian care homes during the pandemic, so many that several provinces have launched investigations. “These are troubling issues that exist on a continuum,” says Penny. “We need to keep wrestling with our concerns about them.”
At the same time, Penny feels strongly that the pandemic helped us rediscover the importance of kindness. “Ultimately, my books are about friendship and community. Three Pines survives because of the love that exists there. Love in all its forms—between people, people and pets, villagers who support each other even when they disagree and who don’t sweep the past under the rug. Villagers who own their past while moving forward.”
The world of Three Pines is brought to listeners’ ears by the well-known British stage and television actor Robert Bathurst, who began performing the series in 2015 after the death of longtime narrator Ralph Cosham. Penny, whose friendship with Cosham was such that she accompanied him to the Audie Awards ceremony where he won top honors for THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, says about Bathurst, “It takes a special person to take on an established series. Robert is that special person. He has done wonderfully. I’m overjoyed for him and me and the readers, who I admire for persevering through the change. We’re so lucky! Everyone loves him.”
Penny, who dines with Bathurst whenever she is in London, is particularly delighted that he will join her for the final stop on her virtual book tour for THE MADNESS OF CROWDS “Robert’s just such a terrific fellow. He will be interviewing me from England. It’ll be late his time, but he’s still game! People can ask questions of either of us, so I hope we have lots of audiobook listeners. It’s going to be so much fun.” (For more information about the August 29 event, visit louisepenny.com/events.htm)—Aurelia C. Scott
Photo of Louise Penny by Jean-François Bérubé.