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The Madness of Crowds (2021)
Louise Penny

In Penny's 17th murder mystery featuring detective Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Sûreté du Québec, a statistician with a controversial political philosophy speaks at the local university, resulting in both an attempted assassination and an actual murder.

Abigail Robinson is the statistician who begins her public speeches by warning audiences that everyone will soon be suffering the consequences of the planet's overpopulation problem. But, she assures them with vague references to mathematics, there is a solution:

(quoted from The Madness of Crowds)

"But it's not too late. I've done the numbers and the solution is clear, if not easy," Abigail Robinson was saying. "If the pandemic taught us anything, it's that not everyone can be saved. Choices must be made. Sacrifices must be made."

Though never fully described in detail, Robinson's argument that the lives of some people must take priority over the lives of others, that some people must suffer to allow for others to achieve happiness, is clearly a post-pandemic, 21st century version of the previous century's eugenics movement.

The book addresses serious topics, not only the environmentalism which underpins Robinson's philosophy and its ethical failings, but also the question of what speech should be tolerated in an academic environment and which ideas are so heinous that they must be censored even in the normally open environment of a university. These are all timely topics worthy of discussion, but also all outside the focus of this website.

So, let's look for a moment at how math is portrayed in this novel. Robinson is not the only mathematical character. Another major character is Colette Roberge, a former mathematics professor now serving as the chancellor of the university. Gamache speaks to her before Robinson's speech because he is worried about the dangers it presents and also later as part of his investigations. These involve some discussions of mathematics and some of Robinson herself:

(quoted from The Madness of Crowds)

"And her work?"

"Was exceptional." Now that they were talking about academics, Chancellor Roberge relaxed. "I'm not sure if you realize that mathematics isn't linear. It's a curve. And in the brightest, most nimble minds, it arcs around to meet philosophy, music, art." She laced her fingers together. "They're intertwined. If you listen to Bach, it's as much a work of math as music."

Gamache had heard this before. Had listened as Clara Morrow, their friend and neighbor and a gifted painter, had mused on just such a convergence. Perspective. Proportion. Spatial reasoning. Logic and problem solving. And portraiture.

"A friend of ours quotes Robert Frost," he said. "A poem begins as a lump in the throat. The artists I know feel the same way. Do mathmaticians?"

This was, the Chancellor knew, more than a casual question. It was a hand grenade. An interesting one, but potentially explosive nevertheless.

"I wouldn't say that. I think for mathematicians, statisticians, the lump in the throat comes at the end. When we see where our work has taken us."

The theme of mathematics and emotion carries through. Later, in an argument with the inspector, the mathematician and statistician seem to be defending pure logic and computation while Gamache emphasizes the importance of emotion:

(quoted from The Madness of Crowds)

"You'd know, Chief Inspector, said Abigail. "Don't you generate theories, based on probability, and then eliminate them as facts come in? Isn't that how you find killers?"

"Very true. But we also have to consider emotions. How we feel about things influences how we see them.

"Bit of a wild card," said Colette.

"Oh, you'd be surprised how clearly the heart can see. What I do know is that how we feel drives what we think, and that determines what we do. Our actions leave behind evidence, those facts you men- tion. But it all starts with an emotion."

"Fortunately, numbers don't have feelings," said Abigail.

"No, but the mathematician, the statistician, does. Can't help but. As do homicide investigators. We can make mistakes. Overinterpret evidence. Even manipulate some facts to suit a convenient theory. We try not to, but we're human and it's tempting. Fortunately, if we do misinterpret facts and arrest the wrong person, the case is dismissed."

"But not always," said Chancellor Roberge. "Innocent people are sometimes convicted. And the guilty are freed."

"My point exactly," said the Chief Inspector. "The same set of facts can lead us to different conclusions. Our interpretation of facts can depend on our experiences. Even our upbringing. On what we want the facts to say."

"Lies, dammed lies, and statistics?" asked Abigail.

He raised his brows, acknowledging the famous quote. But said nothing.

"You think that's what I've done?" She didn't seem defensive, merely curious. Almost amused. "You're not the first person to say that. Can statistics be manipulated? Absolutely. We've all seen it. Politicians, pollsters, ad execs. Anyone with an agenda can spin statistics. But I can tell you, and I suspect Chancellor Roberge will agree, that few aca- demics would do that, if only because we'd soon be found out in peer review. We'd lose all credibility, lose the respect of colleagues, and risk censure by our university."

I appreciate that the characters of Robinson and Roberge break the gender stereotype often associated with mathematicians in fiction (and elsewhere). However, the stereotype of mathematicians as cold and/or evil, unfortunately, is reinforced:

(quoted from The Madness of Crowds)

As he listened, Armand Gamache realized that the Chancellor had been right. This lecture on statistics, on mathematics, was also music. And it was art. Albeit a dark art. Not at all the sort Clara Morrow created, with her luminous portraits.

Professor Robinson was, before their very eyes, turning thoughts into words, and words into action. Facts into fear. Angst into anger. It was artful.

Abigail Robinson was not simply an academic, she was an alchemist.

Thanks to Allan Goldberg for bringing this book to my attention.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Madness of Crowds
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
  2. Inspector Morimoto and the Sushi Chef: A Detective Story set in Japan by Timothy Hemion (aka Anthony Hayter)
  3. Strip Search by William Bernhardt
  4. Touch-Me-Not by Cynthia Riggs
  5. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress
  6. The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison
  7. The Four-Color Puzzle: Falling Off the Map by Lior Samson
  8. Dark of the Moon by John Dickson Carr
  9. The Theory of Death by Faye Kellerman
  10. The Body Counter by Anne Frasier
Ratings for The Madness of Crowds:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifEvil mathematicians, Female Mathematicians, Math as Cold/Dry/Useless,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)