a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|In this award-winning sequel to The Oxford Murders, logician Arthur Seldom and his graduate student "G" must again solve a series of mysterious crimes. This time, the motive involves the nude photos that mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took of young girls in the 19th century. The existence of those photos is not speculation or fiction but, sadly and uncomfortably, a fact. He even took nude photos of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Dodgson's most famous work, Alice in Wonderland which he wrote under the pseudonym "Lewis Carroll". The extent to which we should now consider him to have been guilty of sexual abuse of minors or whether such behavior was truly innocent at that time is a subject of some controversy, one which the novel addresses. However, Seldom and G also have a sequence of related contemporary mysteries to address: a suspicious hit-and-run accident, a poisoning, a beheading....
The American version (under the title "The Oxford Brotherhood") was not published until long after I first heard about this novel's existence. And, unfortunately, it arrived during a very busy semester when I have little time to spare. For both of those reasons, it has taken me a very long time to write this review. Fortunately, I am happy to report that it really is an excellent work of mathematical fiction.
From the descriptions I saw before reading it, it had not even been clear to me that it was going to be mathematical. Of course, Seldom and G (the author's doppelgänger) are both mathematicians, as was Dodgson. However, I thought that might be the extent of it. As it turns out, there is quite a bit more. Kristin Hill, who discovers the new evidence and then is the victim of a hit-and-run accident, is also a mathematician. G's initial role in the investigation is to use mathematical methods to verify that the handwriting is Dodgson's. But, it is not only these ways in which math is tied to the plot that this work of fiction is mathematical.
The whole environment in which the events unfold is mathematical and is written with mathematical language. Since many of the characters are mathematicians, activities related to math are part of their lives and are casually mentioned. G stops by Seldom's office to discuss his thesis. The phrase modus ponens is used in conversation without clarification. And, mathematics is also part of the way they think and communicate. Even non-mathematical concepts are understood or communicated through mathematical metaphors. G attempts to apply mathematical reasoning to sorting out his feelings about the two young women he is attracted to, and describes an older woman's wrinkles as being like a "vector field".
To me, this all seems quite natural. This is not at all an unrealistic portrayal of how professional mathematicians think and feel -- though, of course, most of us are not dealing with the sort of historical drama and life threatening situations that are occurring here. Martinez knows math well enough to get the facts and the tone correctly. It is as if this is a rare book that was written in my native language, making it a pleasure to read for that reason alone. (Perhaps this would be a good place for a "shout out" to Alberto Manguel who translated the edition I read into English. Some of the credit should go to the excellent translation as well!) I am curious to know how others feel about all of this. Do other mathematicians agree with me that this book gets it right? Are readers who are not part of the academic culture of mathematics "turned off" by this aspect of the book that I found so comfortable?
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|(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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)