MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

...
Murder by Mathematics (1948)
Hector Hawton
...

The chair of the mathematics department at a British university and a shady bookseller are the victims in this "whodunnit" published by Ward Lock & Co. (London and Melbourne) in 1948.

It was thanks to Vijay Fafat's mathematical fiction detective work that I learned of the existence of this old mystery novel in which the plot revolves around a purported proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. And, thanks to the magic of I.L.L., a copy of the original 1948 publication showed up in my office mailbox after traveling halfway around the world from Australia! So, I now can say quite a bit more about it and put it in context within the larger body of mathematical fiction.

The first murder victim is the chair of the mathematics department at a British university. He is widely loved by the public to whom he is a popularizer of math and science (somewhat like Bill Nye today). But, he is despised by his wife and the faculty in his department, who know him to be a rather pathetic human being. Therefore, there is no shortage of suspects who would have wanted to see him dead when his body is discovered in his office, having been slain by a blow with a gyroscope. Asmun Hill, an amateur detective whose previous exploits I am presuming were already known to readers, happens to have been on campus that day. His academic background is particularly helpful to the police when a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem is found hidden in the victim's desk.

Many of the characters in the book are mathematicians. Not the police, Hill, nor the victim's wife, but almost everyone else we meet is. It is therefore interesting to me to consider the portrayal of the field of mathematics and prejudices about mathematicians that may be revealed. For instance, at one point Asmun Hill addresses the reason that he does not initially suspect that any of the faculty in the mathematics department are responsible for their chair's death:

(quoted from Murder by Mathematics)

The qualities that made a good mathematician were not those that made a successful murderer. It would be easier to imagine an engineer or a chemist planning violent action than a mathematician. The training and mental habits of the latter--vigorously as he might deny it--were theoretical rather than practical. Such generalizations were, of course, somewhat dangerous, but in any case he felt that he would require exceptionally strong evidence before he could believe that the actual blow had been struck by someone on the staff of the University.

Perhaps that viewpoint is not entirely complimentary, but I prefer it to the suggestion in The Bishop Murder Case that mathematicians have psychopathic tendencies which predispose them to murder.

I was particularly interested in the portrayal of two female mathematicians which I see as stereotype-breaking. "Miss Carter", was fired from the math department shortly before the murder (making her a suspect as well). The reason given for her being let go was that, even though she was very good at math research, she was too shy to be a good lecturer. Later, when she is interviewed by the police, they are impressed that she is actually much more confident and outspoken than he "mousy" appearance suggests. The other female mathematician character is a graduate student from India with whom the murder victim flirted. A lot of attention was paid to her beauty (and to the color of her skin, discussed in ways which would not be considered appropriate today), but it was also made clear that she was a talented mathematician.

I think it may be that the author was intentionally trying to dispel stereotypes of mathematicians. I know almost nothing about the author and so this may be off-the-mark, but I consider the way that the prejudices of the police are explicitly disproven to be evidence to support this hypothesis. They express surprise at the realization that there is such a thing as math research, and also that the mathematics department is so filled with emotion, romance, ambition and other strong emotions (when they had imagined mathematicians as cold and emotionally flat). Perhaps I am projecting, but to me it seems as if the author has given the police these opinions that one might expect many readers to also share so that the story could serve as a form of propaganda to correct these misconceptions.

The book sometimes gets math confused with physics. For example, the gyroscope used to kill the chair is described as a "mathematical implement" used in "mathematical demonstrations". And, the descriptions of the chair's public lectures suggest they are about quantum physics rather than mathematics. Indeed, physicists use a lot of mathematics, mathematicians are often inspired by physics, and there is a large gray area in which it would be hard to distinguish one from the other. Still, Fermat's Last Theorem plays a major role in this book, and almost all of the characters are faculty in the Department of Mathematics. So, even if the description of the gyroscope leaves one wondering whether the author is confusing physics and math, there is enough math to justify viewing this as a work of mathematical fiction.


Spoiler Alert: In this remaining portion of this entry, I am going to discuss the plot and even the resolution of the mystery. The quoted book reviews in Vijay Fafat's contribution below similarly contain spoilers. If you would like to read the book without knowing the solution to the mystery, then I urge you to stop reading this now.
The clues in the murder involve not just one but three copies of a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. The same proof appears as a handwritten page, a typed page, and a photograph of yet another version of the proof. The photo was in the possession of a former math teacher whose rare books business provided a convenient front for his primary source of income, which was as a blackmailer.

For much of the book, one is led to believe that the author of the proof was the mathematics department's associate chair. The idea is that the chair was intending to steal the proof from this other professor working under him and publish it as his own. (In this context, there is some discussion of the controversy involving Newton and Leibniz over who should receive credit for the invention of calculus.)

However, it turns out that the associate chair was not the author of the proof after all. The proof was actually discovered by the blackmailer. He did not create the proof. Rather, he ran across it in an old book and recognized it for what it was: the proof that Fermat himself had discovered but which had been lost for centuries. Since he was more interested in money than fame, he decided to monetize the discovery by selling it to the chair who would be able to publish it under his own name and take credit for being the author of the proof. But, the associate chair kills the chair to steal the proof for himself. He also ends up killing the bookseller to keep him from revealing its true origins.

Overall, not a bad murder mystery and also decent as a work of mathematical fiction, especially in regards to its portrayal of female mathematicians in 1948.

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A murder mystery based on the purported discovery of the elementary proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. As the review from Scripta Mathematica, 1948, pg 294 describes:

(quoted from a 1948 review of Murder by Mathematics )

Here we have a "who-dun-it" in which the plot hinges upon a bit of mathematical history to wit, Fermat's famous last theorem. It will be recalled that Fermat, having enunciated the theorem that no integers other than zero exist which satisfy x n + y n = z^ n , where n > 2. Scrawled in the margin of one of his books the annoying statement: "I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain." He died without revealing the proof in question. One can readily imagine, therefore, the excitement created in mathematical circles when Fermat's lost theorem suddenly turns up on a blank page of Leibniz's “Nouveaux Essais”, and each of two pompous professors decides to win everlasting fame by claiming the discovery as his own. As the plot thickens, no fewer than two murders are committed, not with the conventional weapons of crime, but with that well-known device called the gyroscope. To sustain the intellectual atmosphere, a brilliant archaeologist happens to be present when the first of the rival professors filches the precious discovery, and so becomes the self-appointed Perry Mason of the drama. In the course of his investigation he observes that the personality traits which make a good mathematician are scarcely those which make a good murderer. We shall say no more, lest we deprive the reader of the usual pleasure to be derived from mystery stories.

The Book Taster from the first edition of the book goes as follows (courtesy Amazon/Goodreads reviewer Jay Maxfield):

(quoted from Murder by Mathematics)

Sir Clifford Massey, the famous mathematician whose broadcast talks delighted millions, is found murdered in his room in Westminster University. The real clue to the mystery of his death is a page of mathematics which the police would have overlooked but for the brilliant, donnish investigator (amateur sleuth), Asmun Hill. Murder lifts the curtain on a drama of intense emotions and unusual temptations. Once more Hector Hawton provides a macabre, psychological thriller. The originality of this baffling plot will challenge the ingenious reader, but it also gives rich entertainment as a story. The characters are no mere puppets, but human beings, drawn with subtlety and humour.

(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 Murder by Mathematics
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. Maths a mort by Margot Bruyère
  3. After Math by Miriam Webster
  4. Law and Order: Criminal Intent (Episode: Inert Dwarf) by Renee Balcer (story) / Warren Leight (script) / Alex Chapple (director)
  5. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
  6. The Distant Dead by Heather Young
  7. No One You Know by Michelle Richmond
  8. In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
  9. Strip Search by William Bernhardt
  10. Flowers Stained with Moonlight by Catherine Shaw
Ratings for Murder by Mathematics:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreMystery,
MotifEvil mathematicians, Academia, Proving Theorems, Female Mathematicians,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)