Ten Mathematical Mystery-Suspense Novels
If mathematics is a universal language—“the language God talks,” as physicist Richard Feynman said—it’s not surprising that these ten mathematical stories should come from a culturally far-flung group. This list includes British, American, Argentinian, Japanese, and Greek authors; mathematicians and laypeople; contemporary and period fiction. Of course, we all know that the true universal language is mystery-suspense, which needs no translation.
The Oxford Murders, Guillermo Martinez (translated by Sonia Soto)
In this brisk crime thriller, mathematicians step in as detectives to solve a series of murders near Oxford University. Serial killers leaving behind tantalizing clues is nothing new, but the clues here are terms in a mathematical sequence, and our hero-mathematicians must uncover the pattern in order to stop the next murder. Martinez draws parallels between the work of mathematicians and that of detectives, both disciplines formulating a “proof” of the truth. “What is a criminal investigation,” asks our hero’s mentor, “if not our old game of thinking up conjectures, possible explanations that fit the facts and attempting to prove them correct?” Given the effortless discussions on mathematical logic and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, it’s not surprising to learn that the author holds a Ph.D. in mathematics.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
What starts out as a whodunit after the untimely death of a pet poodle unfurls into a playful exploration of an autistic boy’s mathematically gifted mind. The popularity of Haddon’s book, including an adapted West End and Broadway play, gave this story tremendous reach, but if you’re already familiar with the Sherlock Holmes-obsessed Christopher Boone, his mathematical insights are worth a revisit. The novel’s “maths,” as our English narrator calls it, includes Christopher’s fixation on prime numbers, quadratic equations, the graphing of animal populations, and a real A-level math problem detailed in the appendix. Plus, for anyone whose brain has ever curdled over the famous Monty Hall problem, a handy flow chart sets the record straight.
Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture, Apostolos Doxiadis
A rare intellectual thriller in which the MacGuffin is one of number theory’s most famous unsolved problems, and the ticking clock is one aging academic brain. The hero of the title must solve the conjecture before he reaches the dreaded age of thirty-five (horrors!), past which mathematicians are considered geriatric. A host of real-life mathematicians—Alan Turing, G.H. Hardy, John Littlewood, Kurt Gödel—make amusing cameos as Petros’s colleagues and confidants. The story’s twist ending, of sorts, is both inevitable and satisfyingly ambiguous.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King
In King’s appealing addition to the ever-expanding Sherlock Holmes mythology, the great detective finds a new partner in Mary Russell, a brilliant young woman who proves a far abler sidekick than the “dim-witted” Dr. Watson. Given that Russell is reading mathematics at Oxford and Holmes himself is short on mathematical talent, her skills come into play in the book’s final act. Arthur Conan Doyle fans will remember that James Moriarty was a professor of mathematics—and the numeric cipher in this novel is more than worthy of Holmes’s notorious archenemy. Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, which features plenty of Moriarty mischief, makes a fitting companion read.
The Bishop Murder Case, S. S. Van Dine
This Gatsby-era murder mystery occupies that innocent time in history when toothbrush mustaches and men named Adolph were still all the rage. The majority of the murder suspects are mathematicians, mathematical physicists, or chess champions, so you know from the start that you’re in for a numerically devious solution. Plus, there are lines like, “It would be a shame if Adolph took a tumble before he got his new quantum problem worked out.” This may not be up to the standards of Golden Age detective fiction—the psychological dissection of the “evil” mathematical mind gets pretty silly—but it’s worth a look for its distinct vintage flavor and the fact that nearly the entire cast is number-obsessed.
The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers
No mathematical fiction list would feel entirely complete without a nod to music. Most writers exploring the nexus of music and math would likely fall back on the tempting counterpoint of Baroque keyboard, but not Dorothy Sayers. She prefers to send her man Lord Peter Wimsey (and his man Bunter) headlong into the obscure, distinctly English art of church bell ringing—or “change ringing”—which, as it happens, has a numerical component that sets itself up well for the transmission of ciphers. And wouldn’t you know it, the accomplished Wimsey counts change ringing among his many talents! This puts him in an ideal position to solve this most inventive and bucolic of Golden Age whodunits.
The Fractal Murders, Mark Cohen
When three mathematicians are found dead under suspicious circumstances—fractal geometrists all—it’s up to private investigator Pepper Keane to make the logical connections. If the name Pepper Keane doesn’t tip you off, hard-boiled, Chandleresque wryness awaits. Our well-read detective is happy to expound on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Heidegger’s Being and Time but is soon out of his depth with chaotic mathematics and the fractal nature of reality. It’s a shame Cohen has given his detective a casual sexism that veers from noir pastiche into downright cringeworthy, but the math element is really the star here. And the author does make some of his mathematicians women, including the love interest.
Properties of Light, Rebecca Goldstein
Mathematics and theoretical physics are so often entangled with each other that I’m including Goldstein’s moody mystery-suspense-drama about physicists in love. Discovering Rebecca Goldstein in my twenties felt like stumbling upon a new genre: she writes not exactly science fiction but fiction about scientists in a way that puts her ahead of her time. In Goldstein’s world, the line between scientific passion and romantic obsession can get dangerously blurred, and as the psychological suspense of this novel builds, one can’t help but imagine a riveting art-house film adaptation. Goldstein’s debut novel, The Mind-Body Problem, a comic look at love, philosophy, and mathematics, makes the perfect double feature.
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)
Admittedly, this falls more into the mysteries-of-the-human-mind camp than genre mystery. But the memory component of this novel—the professor of the title suffers from an affliction in which his memory resets every 80 minutes, similar to Guy Pearce’s character in Memento—sets this apart from ordinary drama. Instead of tattoos, the professor pins notes to his clothing to continually remind himself of the recent past, for it is only his mathematics that remains intact. Told from the point of view of a housekeeper and single mother with limited formal education, this slim, sweet novel reveals the enigmas of number theory and the mysteries of the professor himself—who likens his work to “copying truths from God’s notebook”—in a way that’s ideal for young readers and those new to mathematical fiction.
Arcadia, Tom Stoppard
If you’re going to include a stage play in the company of math-minded mystery novels, David Auburn’s Proof seems the inescapable candidate. But as much as I adore that play, Tom Stoppard’s chatty love letter to mathematics, quantum mechanics, and philosophy has overpowered my heart and keyboard. As is often the case with Stoppard, there’s a lot to take in with Arcadia, but keep your eye on the chaos-theory bits and the extraordinary Thomasina Coverly, a teenage girl who anticipates the mathematical theory by 150 years. Besides that, there is no shortage of twists and turns, literary sleuthing, and clever word play that will delight any reader of mystery, particularly fans of the hyper-literate variety.
Nova Jacobs is the author of The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues, a literary mystery set in the world of mathematics. Out March 6 from Touchstone / Simon & Schuster. Learn more at novajacobs.com.