a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Death and the Compass (La Muerte y La Brujula) (1968)
Jorge Luis Borges
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

This is considered one of Borges' greatest short stories, and was even made into a film by "RepoMan" director Alex Cox. The following review from Alejandro Satz explains the mathematical content, but also gives away some of the surprises in the story. So, if "spoilers" bother you, please be sure to read the story before continuing on:

Contributed by Alejandro Satz

A mystery story in which three crimes are comitted in geometrically related places (the vertices of an equilateral triangle) and at periodic intervals of time. The detective Erik Lonrott deduces from several clues that the murders are ritual sacrifaces by a sect that tries to find the Secret Name of God, and that a fourth crime will be comitted in the fourth vertex of a rhombus. He goes there at the exact date hoping to prevent the crime. Unfortunately, it turns out that the series of murders is all an elaborate plan designed to atract Lonrott to that place by a gangster that wants to take revenge on him for imprisoning his brother, all the clues having been carefully faked. In the last paragraphs, Lonrott critizes the labyrinth woven around him as uneconomical, telling his enemy that a labyrinth form of a straight line with points at regulary decreasing distances (as in Zeno's Paradox) is more elegant. Afterwards, he is shot. This is one of Borges' most perfect stories, with a masterful command of the language at every moment. A must read.

Contributed by Anonymous

i am in spanish 5 at my high school and i read the work in spanish and still considered it a great story

Contributed by Anonymous

Our class read the story for fun after the AP exam, we all enjoyed it, it was very interesting and complex

Contributed by Gibrán

amazingly wonderful plotline, math isn´t too heavily involved, but the literary quality is unbeatable

Contributed by Anonymous

I read the story like three times,and I still want to keep reading it. The story had math on it, the math make the story more interesting and excited to read.

Contributed by Erica

After the initial read I immediately loved the mathematical and scientific structure to the story and after analysis the use of numbers throughout each death as well as shapes and colors manipulates the story into a genius masterpiece.

Contributed by Jeanne Ewert

I think your students underestimate the mathematical import of the story. Borges is testing our ability to entertain two opposite ideas simultaneously, as embedded in Zeno's paradoxes. The solution to those paradoxes of course lies at the heart of calculus. There is also a great deal of joking about Poe's prologue to Murders in the Rue Morge, and the comparative difficulty of checkers and chess. Also, note that at the end of the story, we are not told that "Lonnrot is shot." We are told that Red Scharlock fires the pistol, which is not the same thing. Is the bullet still traveling towards Lonnrot, subdividing space as it travels? Borges allows you to re-encounter Zeno in a fresh situation and remember the thrill you had at age ten when your math savvy older cousin told you that you could not fall in a hole.

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Works Similar to Death and the Compass (La Muerte y La Brujula)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez
  2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  3. The Adventure of the Russian Grave by William Barton / Michael Capobianco
  4. Percentage Player by Leslie Charteris
  5. Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in his Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges
  6. The Square Cube Law by Fletcher Pratt
  7. The Locked House of Pythagoras [P. no Misshitsu] by Soji Shimada
  8. Murder, She Conjectured by Alex Kasman
  9. Mathematical Doom by Paul Ernst
  10. The Use of Geometry in the Modern Novel by Norman Clarke
Ratings for Death and the Compass (La Muerte y La Brujula):
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:
3.67/5 (12 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.34/5 (12 votes)

MediumShort Stories, Films,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)