a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Solid murder mystery in which a high school math teacher finds the murderer of three of her best students.
My favorite thing about this book is the way that Bonnie Pinkwater and her boyfriend -- the middle school science teacher -- demonstrate the thought processes of mathematicians as they unravel the mystery. (For example, they say things like "Well, there are two cases...either she is telling the truth or she isn't. If she is telling the truth then..." ) The quirky romance itself (Pinkwater is a middle-aged widow and the science teacher just begins flirting with her in the school cafeteria towards the beginning of the book) is also quite charming. As for the mystery itself, I am quite picky about such things and must say that this one is pretty good. There seem at first to be lots of possible motives and suspects, but logic and clues narrow it down slowly until the resolution provides the desired "Aha!" moment.
Despite the title, there really is not much explicit mathematics in the book. As you may know, The Witch of Agnesi is the name of a geometric object, a parametric curve, named for the 18th century mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. It was clever of the author to include two main characters in the story who would relate to Agnesi's biography: a young mathematics prodigy and his classmate who is literally a witch (in the sense of following the Wiccan religion). Several times early on in the book, Pinkwater gets close to telling her class Agnesi's life story, but it is not until the end of the book that she finally is able to do so. It is the telling of the story that finally prompts her to recognize the identity of the murderer, even though the murder mystery is not directly related to math in any way. (The blurb suggested that a mistranslated mathematics document was somehow related, and so I had thought that the murder itself might have been motivated by a mathematical result...but it is nothing like that.) The author supposedly has taught mathematics for more than a quarter of a century, and so he presumably knows quite a bit. As I've already said, the characters do demonstrate mathematical thought. But, aside from the description of the curve of the title towards the end, the book is pretty much mathematics-free.
I can highly recommend this book to adults who enjoy the mystery genre. (Like most good mysteries, this one is not written with beautiful prose, and it does not attempt to be particularly deep. Rather, it has a "gritty" style, introduces some likable characters, and presents a few simple life lessons while running us through an intriguing but violent puzzle.) There is only one thing that really troubles me about it. The cover identifies it as a "Young Adult Mystery". I am not sure who has identified this book as being appropriate for young adults, but I disagree with the classification. For one thing, I don't think teens would be very interested in reading it. Since it is told from the point of view of Bonnie Pinkwater, you would need to be able to identify with a person in her situation. Her feelings of guilt as she begins dating a new boyfriend less than two years after her husband's death, her affection for her students, and her insecurities about her own appearance as her body ages are unlikely to appeal to young audiences. The details of the relationship between two middle-aged teachers is likely to gross young readers out! Moreover, the comments about sex (both innuendo about their relationship and remarks about rape involving other characters) might not be what some parents want their children to be reading.
Apparently, this is the first in a series of Bonnie Pinkwater mysteries. Perhaps I am alone in hoping that the rest of the books are even more mathematical. But, in any case, I will read them and post information about them here on this Website as soon as I can.
Update: I've just finished reading the sequel (prequel?) "A Calculated Demise" and have added an entry for it here.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)