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The Bird with the Broken Wing (1930)
Agatha Christie

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

The Harley Quin stories (this collection, plus two later stories) are amongst the most peculiar mysteries ever written. (They certainly are Dame Agatha's most peculiar. They were also her personal favorites.)

The broad outline is always the same. One Mr. Satterthwaite, elderly and independently wealthy, finds himself embroiled in an old mystery or a soon to happen tragedy. Out of nowhere, Mr. Quin, or some surprise signal from him, pops up, and by the most innocent and nonleading of questions, Mr. Satterthwaite finds himself unraveling the mystery. He doesn't actually solve it, so to speak, but just finds that the relevant facts are suddenly apparent.

The stories are best read in order (in particular, the collection does not have a table of contents, no doubt to discourage random access), as the sense of strangeness grows from story to story. One finds oneself embroiled in the metamystery of who or what is this Harley Quin.

In "The Bird With the Broken Wing", Mr. Satterthwaite finds himself called to house Laidell by Quin via a round of "table turning" (a forerunner of the Ouija board). By this time in the stories, Mr. Satterthwaite knows that a call from Quin is always important, and he leaves for Laidell immediately.

The owner turns out to be "a most brilliant mathematician", who had authored a book "totally incomprehensible to ninety-nine hundredths of humanity". And like the impact his professional work had on ordinary people, so too went his personality. He was essentially one with the furniture, whom servants and guests equally had trouble noticing. And then something happens....

Mr. "Emba" is always very careful to avoid giving away any information that might spoil the story for a reader. This is very kind of him, but I am also interested in collecting here information that might be pertinent for someone either researching mathematical fiction or trying to select fiction to use in a class. Consequently, I do sometimes want to mention things that might "give it away". I'm about to do so here, in fact. So, please stop reading now if you want to read the story before hearing more of what I have to say about it.

In the story, a woman is brutally murdered. In the end, the murderer turns out to be the old mathematician that "WE Emba" described above. Strangely, there is absolutely no motive given. In fact, he seemed to do it for no reason other than that he could. Now, it may not be fair of me to attempt to analyze this further, but I will nevertheless. Why is it, I ask, that the character was made a mathematician and an apparently homocidal, amoral madman? One possible explanation is that it is a coincidence, but I do not really believe that. I think that it is one of the two following explanations:

  • EITHER we are supposed to understand that mathematics causes immorality and madness and that mathematicians are therefore prone to commit murders for no good reason. (You might think that this is far-fetched, but I would like to point out that in the Bishop Murder Case, this is not simply alluded to but stated quite clearly by the detective as a fact!)
  • OR we are to supposed to note that mathematicians are people who tend to be "invisible", like the murderer in this story, and that being invisible is a temptation to commit crimes (either to become visible or to take advantage of the invisibility).
Either way, it seems to me, a link between mathematics and murder is implied. I am not aware of any evidence to support such claims (outside of fiction, that is) and find its frequent repetition in stories to be a bit troubling.

Contributed by Riordan

I noticed the discussion about "The Bird with the Broken Wing", part of Dame Agatha Christie's Quin and Satterthwaite series, and wanted to put in my little bit, please. The review mentions that there was no motive given for the murder committed by the brilliant mathematician. The motive wasn't overt. The mathematician did not approve of his daughter being engaged to a man who was involved with another woman, an actress, who happened also to be staying in the house. That the murderer was a mathematician didn't have any relevance to the motive. I think that in Christie's time, the stereotype (of the brilliant scientist who worked in isolation because most of the world couldn't understand him) was very strong, and this was also a time when women were often barred from being scientists themselves or taking up careers in that area. She wrote about mathematicians from a distance. Thank you.

Yes, Riordan. I see now that you are right. The motive is implied in the story and so the mathematician character is not quite so crazy or evil as I had imagined when I first (mis)read the story.

Contributed by Kake

Shares a theme with the Father Brown story, "The Invisible Man." The use of math here plays on biases against certain academic types.

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Works Similar to The Bird with the Broken Wing
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Bishop Murder Case by S.S. van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright)
  2. Mailman by J. Robert Lennon
  3. The Devotion of Suspect X [YĆ“gisha X no kenshin] by Keigo Higashino
  4. The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King
  5. The Theory of Death by Faye Kellerman
  6. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  7. The Elusive Bullet by John Rhode (aka Cecil John Charles Street)
  8. Secrets to the Grave by Tami Hoag
  9. The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  10. The Zero Clue by Rex Stout
Ratings for The Bird with the Broken Wing:
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:
1.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (3 votes)

MotifEvil mathematicians, Anti-social Mathematicians, Insanity,
MediumShort Stories,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)