RogerBW's Blog

The Three Body Problem, Catherine Shaw 11 February 2017

2004 historical epistolary mystery. In Cambridge in 1888, a young schoolmistress tries to solve the murders of three mathematicians before her beau is convicted of them.

Catherine Shaw is described as "a professional mathematician and academic living in France", but I suspect her of having spent significant time in America; infelicities of language like "I convinced (person) to (action)" may have become common in the United Kingdom these days, but "outside of" is not. (I am right: see Leila Schneps.) One gets used to this sort of thing when reading books by Americans, and to judges using gavels, though to an English reader it damages one's sense of immersion; more grave, in a book that is utterly soaked in period detail, is a solicitor's reference to a lack of fingerprints on a bottle, when fingerprints were not taken at all seriously in England until some years later. Better covered, and more interesting, are the mathematics, largely the birthday problems of Oscar II of Sweden as announced in Acta Mathematica; Gösta Mittag-Lefler makes an appearance late in the book.

The book is structured roughly in thirds, and the first is the best: Vanessa describes her situation in Cambridge and meets various people, and the terms of the mystery are established. The second section is a court transcript which frankly drags, not to mention never actually establishing anything like the guilt of the prisoner; the third is a sudden dash across Europe, by someone who is established as not having enough money to pay for regular meals, accompanied by children not her own without their parents' agreement, which seems to me rather more likely to have got Vanessa arrested than to have provided her with the proof she was seeking. A final scene in which she presents her speculations to the court do nothing to disprove the (frankly dubious) case against the prisoner, merely to introduce an alternative explanation of events, but the jury (previously convinced of his guilt) is happy immediately to acquit him.

The mathematicians, both the real Arthur Cayley and Grace Chisholm and those invented for the book, are well portrayed, though I found the resolution of the mystery entirely unconvincing in terms of the personalities that had been established for victims and suspects; one must however admit its clear technical appeal.

By coincidence I read this shortly after Chapel Noir, which is much more of a celebration of research; Shaw tends to make up incidental detail instead of taking the research a bit further and digging out another genuinely historical gem.

It's all right (particularly as an audio-book while driving), and Vanessa herself is pleasant to read about, but there's nothing here to amaze or astound. Followed by Flowers Stained With Moonlight.

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