As I write and post this, it’s 14 March (3.14), also known as Pi Day. Even if you hated maths in school, it’s hard to deny the importance of mathematical principles in life. They help us understand quite a lot about our universe; and we use them constantly, whether it’s following a recipe, keeping track of bank accounts, or deciding how much space we’ll need in that new place. The other thing about mathematics is that much of it is quite objective. Two of something, plus two more of that same something, equals four of that something. For those who like the objective and the clear (as opposed to the subjective and ambiguous), that can be quite refreshing.
Mathematics finds its way into just about everything, including music and poetry. So it’s little wonder we find a lot of mathematics and mathematicians in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples.
Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, is a brilliant mathematician. Here is what Holmes says about him in The Adventure of the Final Problem:
‘‘He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.’’
As Holmes goes on to explain, though, Moriarty has a dark side and is now London’s top criminal leader. In this story, Holmes and Watson find the man such a dangerous enemy that they end up having to leave London for a time. They end up in Switzerland, where Holmes and Moriarty have a climactic meeting at the Reichenbach Falls. Of course, if you are a fan of these stories, you’ll know the saga doesn’t end there…
Plenty of the action in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is very capably run by Honoria Bulstrode. But she depends very much on Miss Chadwick, the mathematics mistress and the co-founder of the school. Miss Chadwick is a bit vague when she talks and she’s hardly a fashionable dresser. But she is a brilliant mathematician, and passionately devoted to the school. When games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion, Miss Chadwick is one of the two people who discover the body. Then, there’s a disappearance. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, discovers an important clue to the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who knows a good friend of her mother’s, and tells him what she knows. Poirot goes back to Meadowbank with her to investigate; and in the end, he finds out the connection between the murders, the disappearance, and a revolution in a Middle East country.
In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we are introduced to Smilla Jaspersen. She’s half-Inuit and half-Danish, but was originally raised among her mother’s people on Greenland. She’s since moved to Copenhagen and, after a troubled childhood and adolescence, has become a mathematician and scientist. She forms a friendship with a young boy Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building and is also a Greenlander. When Isaiah falls (or jumps, or is pushed) from the roof of the building, Smilla takes a special interest in his death. The police account is that the boy was playing on the roof and accidentally fell. But that’s not what the snow patterns say. So Smilla begins to ask some questions. The trail leads back to Greenland and to a particular expedition there. And it’s mathematics, science and a deep knowledge of snow and ice that give Smilla the answers.
Keigo Higashino also uses mathematics in his series featuring physicist/mathematician Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In The Devotion of Suspect X, Tokyo police officer Shunpei Kusanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. The victim’s ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion, but Kusanagi can’t find any really good evidence to connect her with the crime. So he brings in Galileo to consult on the case. It’s not long before Galileo sees that he is up against a formidable opponent (and former college mate) Tetsuya Ishigami, a mathematics teacher who lives in the same building as Yasuko Hanaoka. Ishigami has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her. In this case, mathematics and physics are woven throughout the novel.
There are also mathematics-related mysteries intended for younger readers. For instance, Leith Hathout’s Crimes and Mathdemeanors is a collection of stories featuring fourteen-year-old Ravi, a math genius who helps the local police solve crimes. Readers who remember the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries will find this a similar sort of context. What’s interesting in this collection is that mathematics principles are used to solve the cases.
There are even crime writers who are mathematicians. For instance, fans of the Michael Stanley writing duo’s Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series may know that one half of that duo, Michael Sears, is a mathematician. His specialty was applied mathematics (e.g. image analysis and ecological modeling).
So you see? Mathematics is everywhere, including crime fiction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a piece of π.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kate Bush’s π.