a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Bishop Murder Case (1929)
S.S. van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright)
Highly Rated!

Our hero, Vance, says at the end of this mystery novel: "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 evey possible suspect was a mathematician." (In fact, most of the victims in the serial killings known as the "Bishop murders" are mathematicians too!)

Any fan of mathematical fiction has to check out this murder mystery, first published in 1929. Due to the bizarre clues and references to nursery rhymes left by the murderer, a series of killings in the house of a senior mathematics professor at Columbia University attract the attention of the public and of private investigator Philo Vance. Since the victims and suspects are almost all mathematicians, there is a lot of math discussed in the book. Most of it is mathematical physics (quantum and relativistic, discussed with some serious sophistication for a novel written in 1929, IMHO!) and also a bit of the mathematics of chess. It is a bit disturbing that the book seems to imply that the only serious mathematics is mathematical physics, but perhaps it did seem that way to some people in the 20's.

One of the clues is a torn piece of paper with formulas involving the Riemann-Christoffel tensor. (It looks strange because it is typed on a manual typewriter...but it is supposed to.) The mere fact that this note is found at the scene of a murder is not only an indication that the murderer is a mathematician, it is even the particular notation used that turns out to be somewhat significant.

The most interesting thing to me was the long lecture from Vance (beginning on page 269 in my book) in which he explains how doing mathematics can drive you crazy. In fact, the murders themselves are the result of years of math research on the poor mind of the murderer! He says

(quoted from The Bishop Murder Case)

In order to understand these crimes...we must consider the stock-in-trade of the mathematician, for all his speculations and computations tend to emphasize the relative insignificance of this planet and the unimportance of human life...He deals in abstruse and apparently contradict'ry speculations which the average mind can not even grasp. He lives in a realm where time, as we know it, is without meaning save as a fiction of the brain, and becomes a fourth coordinate of three-dimensional space; where distance is also meaningless except for neighboring points, since there are an infinite number of shortest routes between any two given points...In this realm of the modern mathematician, curves exist without tangents. Neither Newton nor Leibnitz nor Bernoulli even dreamed of a continuous curve without a tangent -- that is, a continuous function without a differential co-efficient. Indeed, no one is able to picture such a contradiction -- it lies beyond the power of imagination. And yet, it is a commonplace of modern mathematics to work with curves that have no tangents...[Now he relates some of the odder features of general relativity.] These are not paradoxes of logic,...they're only paradoxes of feeling. Mathematics accounts for them logically and scientifically. The point I'm trying to make is that things which seem inconsistent and even absurd to the lay mind are commonplaces to the mathematical intelligence. [And now the point:] Is it surprising...that a man dealing in such colossal, incommensurable concepts...might in time lose all sense of relative values...? ...In his heart he would scoff at all human values, and sneer at the littleness of the visual things about him."

Lots of twists and turns make this book a fun read. (Just don't take the comments about math turning people into murderers too seriously. Very few of the mathematicians that I know are murderers.)

Tons of thanks to Sandro Caparrini (Torino, Italy) for pointing this one out to me!

There is a film version of this book, staring Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance. Having been made in 1930, it is one of the early "talkies". In fact, the NY Times movie review brags

Contributed by NY Times, 2/1/1930

This film is another instance of the progress made in sound, for it is a production in which one follows the words with little or no thought being given to the mechanical device. Moreover, this occasionally spine-chilling narrative is in the hands of thoroughly competent players, who evidently know their lines as well as they would were they on the stage.

However, it also makes the movie a bit hard to watch as the actors all completely ham it up. For a sample, see this preview:

Contributed by c w f

For anyone interested in relativity theory and convoluted detective stories, this "takes the biscuit."

Contributed by Chris

Mathematically, I rank quite low so I can not comment on that part of the content. However, I like the 1930 film with Basil Rathbone as Vance, and you can see it on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. In fact I've just requested they show it again, on their website; I shall re-read my paperback for the math. Thanks.

Contributed by Sandro Caparrini

Dear Alex,

Look what I’ve found: the great physicist Dirac talking about mathematical mysteries! Here it is:

“I shall mention just one example to illustrate the sort of enthusiasm that prevailed. In a detective story called The Bishop Murder Case, an important clue was provided by a piece of paper on which some of the Einstein equations were written down. The theory of relativity was woven into the plot of the story, with the result that the book had a big sale. All the young people were reading it. That shows you the tremendous excitement that pervaded all fields of thought. It has never happened before or since in the history of science that a scientific idea has been so much caught up by the public and has produced so much enthusiasm and excitement.”

The above quotation is taken from an article about the growing popularity of the theory of relativity during the 1920s: P. A. M. Dirac, The Early Years of Relativity, in Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives (Princeton University Press, 1982), 79-90.

A few remarks:

1. The “Einstein equations” referred to by Dirac are the Bianchi identities, discovered by the Italian mathematician Luigi Bianchi (1856-1928). Contracting the Bianchi identities, one gets the Einstein tensor, the essential ingredient for the field equations of General relativity.
2. While the characters in the book talk about relativity, this is not really part of the plot.
3.The book was published in 1929. This means that probably Dirac read it when he was busy creating his mathematical version of quantum theory.

Merry Christmas

(now in Lille, France)

Contributed by Alex

It has just come to my attention that a free, electronic version of the book (in plain text format) is available from Project Gutenberg. See, for example, this Australian mirror site. Moreover, a nicely typeset version is available through Isn't the Internet wonderful?

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at logo
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Bishop Murder Case
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Case of the Murdered Mathematician by Julia Barnes / Kathy Ivey
  2. The Bird with the Broken Wing by Agatha Christie
  3. Strip Search by William Bernhardt
  4. Straw Dogs by Sam Peckinpah (Director)
  5. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  6. The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen
  7. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
  8. The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison
  9. Advanced Calculus of Murder by Erik Rosenthal
  10. The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez
Ratings for The Bishop Murder Case:
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:
3.25/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.2/5 (5 votes)

MotifEvil mathematicians, Insanity, Academia,
TopicMathematical Physics,
MediumNovels, Films, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)