He Does Love His Numbers*

Pi DayAs 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Keigo Higashino, Leith Hathout, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Peter Høeg

27 responses to “He Does Love His Numbers*

  1. Keishon

    Great post Margot! Nope. You can’t escape math. It’s EVERYWHERE. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

  2. Hard not to agree Margot, especially when so many early mysteries felt so much like acrostics. I’m a big fan of the early Philo Vance novels and THE BISHOP MURDER CASE has a fine mathematical feel to it – to quote the sleuth: “At the outset I was able to postulate a mathematician as the criminal agent. The difficulty of naming the murderer lay in the fact that nearly every possible suspect was a mathematician.”

    • That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post, Sergio. And it really is interesting isn’t it how many of the older mysteries (like that one) have that mathematical ‘feel’ to them. And as always, you’ve reminded me of an author I ought to spotlight one of these times.

  3. Margot: Garrett Reilly, the hero of The Ascendant by Drew Chapman, has a phenomenal memory for numbers and an amazing ability to see patterns. His talents with numbers are at the heart of this striking thriller.

  4. I really enjoy Maths (as we say!) for the exact reasons you give – you’re either right or wrong. I find that very satisfying. I don’t think I could study it at University level though – some of the harder stuff makes your head hurt… Cat Among The Pigeons is one of the Christie’s I “reclaimed” I’mfrom my parents’ at Christmas; I must read it. I think Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow is at their house too, actually. Here’s a very “Maths” crime fiction novel – The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez. Mathematical symbols are found at murder scenes, and a professor and a post grad student end up investigating them. It’s a few years since I read it, but I remember it as greatly enjoyable (apparently there was a film made,with Elijah Wood and John Hurt, but I didn’t see it!) Btw, I’d read about pi day on the internet, but didn’t “get it”, as our dates are a different way round in the UK! Numbers!

    • Crimeworm – It is interesting isn’t it about the way dates are done. I do them dd/mm myself, but a lot of US people don’t. And of course, the whole Pi Day thing doesn’t make as much sense unless you do dates mm/dd. As you say – numbers! It is satisfying to know that when it comes to mathematics, there is such a thing as ‘correct’ or ‘not correct.’ The numbers either add up or they don’t. There is something nice and clear-cut about that. I do hope you’ll get to Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I think that most of it is absolutely great. And of course, I’m very fond of Cat Among the Pigeons, so I’m bound to recommend that one. Thanks for recommending The Oxford Murders. I’ve heard good things about it, but I’ve not (yet) read it.

  5. I was very confused about Pi Day because in the UK we do dd/mm rather than mm/dd but I got there in the end. I think my love of crime fiction matches my love of maths because it is all a puzzle and looking for patterns both of which are very satisfying.

    • That’s quite true, Cleo. Solving mysteries has in common with mathematics that it’s all about patterns and algorithms and puzzles. So it’s not surprising that you like both maths and crime fiction.

  6. Hi Margot! Bob Spiller wrote a couple of mysteries with a high school math teacher as the main protagonist (The Witch of Agnesi, Radical Equations). I wish he would write more of them because his main character, Bonnie Pinkwater. is interesting and fun.

  7. I’m all in favour of Pi Day – though here in Scotland we spell it Pie… 😉

  8. Since my degree in college was in mathematics, I find this interesting, even though I am not that focused on it now. I do need to reread Smilla’s Sense of Snow; and I should get to the Michael Stanley series.

    • I didn’t know you’d taken a degree in mathematics, Tracy! That’s interesting. Then you know a lot better than I do how much mathematics is woven into everything. I do hope you’ll get the chance to try the Michael Sears/Stanley Trollip series; I think it’s quite good.

  9. Hahahahaha. Love the ending! What, no chocolate covered almonds?

    Math IS everywhere. Back in school, I had a great math teacher, so animated, so passionate. Good thing to, because otherwise I might have been tempted to sleep through class. Yup, I was one of “those” kids.

  10. Col

    Interesting post – I’ve yet to read the Hoeg book. I can’t recall numbers featuring too much in my books, maybe the odd-gambler figuring the odds at the track – Jason Starr’s Nothing Personal and Fake ID, concentrate on hopeless gamblers.

    • You know, when I put this post together, Col, I hadn’t thought about gambling, but that’s certainly mathematics too. Thanks for giving this that angle, and for mentioning the Starr books. I’ll have to check them out.

    • Col – I’m just reading my first Jason Starr book, Cold Caller, and its excellent. No Exit Press sent me it unexpectedly, and its great so far, and a very easy read!

  11. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon, the hero/narrator only has chapter numbers that are prime numbers, because those are his favourites. I think that tells you a lot about him, and about this lovely book where he solves the crime.

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira! And I’m so glad you mentioned that book, as it really is a fine ‘un. Folks, if you haven’t read The Curious…, I recommend it highly.

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