2005 historical epistolary mystery, second of Shaw's series. In 1892,
a young woman's much older husband has been murdered; her mother
brings in Vanessa Duncan to try to get the answers and avoid scandal
before the police arrest the widow.
The first book integrated its murder mystery with the three-body
problem, which provided both motivation and analogy. Here Fermat's
Last Theorem is discussed briefly, but it's only very tangentially
significant to the plot; it mostly provides background, and another
quest that the modern reader knows is hopeless because the problem
won't be solved for another century.
A more serious problem, though, is the title, from
a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas
(part of it conveniently given as an epigraph). If you know who
Douglas was or what the poem is about, you will wonder why it's there;
hints in the book reinforce the idea that you might get from that, and
since our heroine-narrator is entirely blind to the concept it makes
her look stupid not to have thought of it (whether or not it's
actually relevant to the solution of the mystery). Without the poem
(and the title), the book would not have engendered the feelings of
frustration that it does.
Shaw persists in writing this young Victorian lady (and everyone else)
in American, most grievously with a reporter who has "a brother-in-law
in the police force, in homicide, as a matter of fact". I'm not sure
that even American police forces had a homicide division in the 1890s,
and certainly no British one did; it might just possibly have had a
murder squad, though even this is unlikely. Infelicities of language
like this throw one out of the story, and are completely unnecessary;
Shaw could just as easily have written "who's working on this murder".
The epistolary style mostly works well, only occasionally tripping up
(when Vanessa writes to her sister to talk about the visit she has
just made to said sister). Vanessa remains an interesting viewpoint
character, and her fiancé is well-written as someone supporting her
investigations but also conscious of social considerations, but the
mystery itself is relatively simple and not perhaps worth the bulk of
words that it takes to get to a solution – especially when the key
revelation is done not in person but via a concealed document that
Vanessa finds essentially by chance at the narratively appropriate
Occasionally annoying, and light when it isn't annoying, but there's
still some enjoyment to be had. Followed by The Library Paradox.