“What?” I hear my fellow bookworms cry! It is true. A humungous pile of domestic (un)bliss, or the ironing, is currently more attractive than the cinema trip I had planned for this afternoon. A trip to see the film of the book I read last week. Which book? One heralded as “one of the best detective novels of recent years” and winner of the 2003 Planeta Prize. One in which the solution , with a body count of 13 (by my reckoning), is based on the solving of an intriguing mathematical puzzle.
Nothing as seductive as mathematical puzzles. As if I can solve them. I was educated in an age when it was impossible to study languages and sciences after O-level. It simply wasn’t done. So at that point my mathematical career stalled but I remain fascinated. Remembering that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, that is, a² + b² = c², I confidently predicted much pleasure from a book interwoven with Pythagorean symbiology. Throw in Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness, Wittgenstein’s infinite rule paradox and Fermat’s last theorem and suddenly I’m really missing that Ph D in mathematics I wish I’d held out for! Fortunately the author of this book has one, as does the professor of mathematics at Oxford University who wrote this review. Yes, I can understand his pleasure in prose like this:
My hypothesis is that is is profoundly linked to the aesthetic that has been promulgated down the ages and has been, essentially, unchanging. There is no Kantian forcing, but an aesthetic of simplicity and elegance which also guides the formulation of conjectures; mathematicians believe that the beauty of a theorem requires certain divine proportions between the simplicity of the axioms at the starting point, and the simplicity of the thesis at the point of arrival.
As the layman rightly said, “Eh?” Now this may be clever but in literary terms it is hit-over-the-head-with-a-sledge-hammer exposition. And there’s reams of it. Fortunately lightened with a love story, although the romance is devoid of fire or passion even if, at one point, the couple “make love all afternoon like happy rabbits“. This interpersed, of course, with the plot, for this is a murder mystery. Pedestrian (despite the body count) and quite poor. I twigged it at the first murder. Perhaps it’s my lack of mathematical finesse but how can you recognise a symbolic sequence is starting when there is only one clue? Surely you need at least two?
You will, of course, have identified Guillermo Martinez’s critically-acclaimed but Lizzy-derided The Oxford Murders. Avoid the book. If you see the film, do let me know just how John Hurt manages to make the lines such as those quoted above entertaining. Nobody’s that good, surely.