RogerBW's Blog

The Library Paradox, Catherine Shaw 26 July 2017

2006 historical mystery, third of Shaw's series. In 1896, Vanessa Weatherburn (now a mother of twins) investigates the murder of a professor of history at King's College.

Shaw drops the epistolary style for this book and frames the story as Vanessa's diary, though in effect it is plain narration with occasional date headings just as before. It rapidly becomes clear that the deceased professor was a rabid anti-Semite, and this is an excuse for lengthy infodumps on Judaism, in particular the Hasidic sect, as well as the Dreyfus affair (with extracts from letters and reports).

It is a standard problem for an author wanting to write about unpleasant historical things, like the pervasive anti-Semitism of this period, that if your viewpoint character has an implausibly modern attitude you risk losing the sympathy of the reader with historical awareness; whereas if she doesn't, you risk losing the sympathy of the reader who doesn't want to think about a character they like having nasty aspects. This book handles it badly, I think: all the Bad people are anti-Semitic, and all the anti-Semitic people are Bad, and I felt as though Shaw were trying to lecture me out of an attitude I don't even hold.

(Next paragraph in rot13 because it gives away a minor plot point.)

V nyfb fvzcyl qb abg oryvrir gung na nagv-Frzvgr qbvat erfrnepu ba npphfngvbaf bs evghny zheqre ol Wrjf, v.r. fbzrbar onfvpnyyl va flzcngul jvgu fhpu npphfngvbaf jub jnagrq bgure crbcyr gb oryvrir gurz, jbhyq hfr gur grez "oybbq yvory" va uvf svyvat flfgrz. Ur'q pnyy vg "evghny zheqre" be fbzr fhpu. Zber frevbhfyl, gur grez "oybbq yvory" qbrfa'g rira nccrne gb unir orra va nal fbeg bs pbzzba hfr hagvy gur 1950f; gur grez hfrq ol gubfr flzcngurgvp gb gur Wrjf jbhyq cebonoyl unir orra "oybbq npphfngvba", juvpu fgnegf gb trg hfrq va gur 1890f.

When the action stops for several pages to wedge in the titular paradox (here described by Bertrand Russell some years before he propounded it historically, and explicitly stated to be a reformulation of the Burali-Forti paradox) it's something of a relief. I'd love to read a mathematical-historical paper arguing for this tight connection; here in a work of fiction it feels a bit like the unsourced contentions in The Daughter of Time, though as usual for this series there's a decent endnote giving more detail.

It doesn't really have anything to do with the plot, though, except that there's paradoxical evidence and the murder happened in a library; and it's not worked into the narrative the way The Three Body Problem managed the trick. So soon enough we're back to how everybody hates the Jews. (And yet… I don't know whether Shaw is Jewish herself, but she comes across here as an outsider writing about these quaint native peoples and their fascinating customs – a sympathetic outsider, certainly, but one writing from an assumption of superiority. That might be cunning characterisation of Vanessa, of course, but it doesn't feel like it.)

The actual solution to how the professor died is distressingly obvious; the reason for it becomes so too, and when Shaw has Vanessa dreaming of a connection that our heroine hasn't yet made I got the impression that Shaw wanted to shout at Vanessa and get her to think a bit harder, nearly as much as I did.

Ah well. I may read another of these, or I may not, but I can't recommend this one. Followed by The Riddle of the River.

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Previous in series: Flowers Stained With Moonlight | Series: Cambridge Mysteries | Next in series: The Riddle of the River

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