The best mathematical mystery novels

Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez Author Of Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom
By Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

Who are we?

We are a mother and daughter team of mathematicians (respectively a researcher in mathematics and a math graduate who runs an educational company) and detective novel lovers (with Agatha Christie a firm favorite). We’re also both very passionate about the importance of a good foundational mathematics education for everyone.

We wrote...

Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom

By Leila Schneps, Coralie Colmez,

Book cover of Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom

What is our book about?

Math on Trial describes ten trials spanning two centuries and several countries, in which mathematical evidence was used – or rather, disastrously misused – as evidence. Among others, you’ll read the stories of Sally Clark, who was accused of murdering her children by a doctor with a bad understanding of probabilities, of nineteenth-century tycoon Hetty Green, whose dispute over her aunt's will became a signal case in the forensic use of mathematics, and of Dutch nurse Lucia de Berk, falsely accused of having murdered her patients with the help of some faulty data collection and erroneous calculations.

Each chapter of the book covers the captivating human story behind one case and describes in detail the mathematical argument that was used, and where it went wrong.

The books we picked & why

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By Tom Stoppard,

Book cover of Arcadia

Why this book?

Starting with a classic – this very funny play takes place in one room of an aristocratic British country estate, alternating between 1809 and 1993. In the 20th century, a couple of academics are trying to piece together (usually getting it pretty wrong) the dramatic events that we see unfolding in the 19th. 

As well as many entertaining mix-ups and romantic entanglements, the story involves a despondent maths graduate from the present time grappling with the same problem as Thomasina, a young prodigy from the earlier period. When Thomasina learns about Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, she considers the idea that, given that we know the position and direction of all the atoms in the universe at one precise moment in time, there must be a formula out there that describes ‘all of the future’.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues

By Nova Jacobs,

Book cover of The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues

Why this book?

Thomasina’s musings in Arcadia lead us naturally to Nova Jacobs’ entertaining mystery: the titular equation is closely linked to Thomasina’s ‘theory of everything’ (in fact, a quote from Arcadia opens one of Jacobs’ chapters). When Isaac suddenly dies of an apparent suicide, his adoptive granddaughter Hazel is left to follow his enigmatic clues to discover where Isaac has hidden the equation he spent the last years of his life working on, what exactly it calculates, and who else is after it. 

The best thing about this book is the Severy family, a bunch of mathematicians and theoretical physicists living in a hilariously drawn world of academic pettiness, demanding PhD students, dry periods that seem like they might never end, judgmental relatives, and disappointingly un-academic offspring. Sounds just like our family!

The Fractal Murders

By Mark Cohen,

Book cover of The Fractal Murders

Why this book?

This book loves to pretend to be a Raymond Chandler type thriller with a hard-boiled detective, but what might be a stereotype is offset by the detective's past and his personal struggle with depression, as well as a romantic interest in his client, an attractive female mathematician who hires him to figure out why three different mathematicians she contacted about the exact same topic have all died recently.  

Pieces are gathered and put together bit by bit to form a well-balanced mystery complete with false leads and a twist at the end. What makes this novel quite unique is the place given to the actual mathematics of fractals, with enough explanation to communicate not only their fascinating nature but also several applications, much of which is even relevant to the mystery. Best of all is the accurate depiction of the passion of the mathematicians for their subject, their lifestyle, and their devotion to their research.

The Truth about Archie and Pye (A Mathematical Mystery)

By Jonathan Pinnock,

Book cover of The Truth about Archie and Pye (A Mathematical Mystery)

Why this book?

This energetic mystery is populated by a range of extremely colourful characters from reclusive twin brother mathematicians to disreputable biographers and Belarusian Mafiosi, and it has a suitably hapless narrator to guide us through the mess of murder, stolen mathematical documents and unsavoury rumours. 

The final revelation is pretty crude and disappointing but it doesn't matter too much because the book up til there is very great (and very British) fun. There's plenty of mathematical trivia and some discussion of actual maths, including an interesting scene where we get to contrast how two brains - one mathematical and one not - approach a problem.

The Three Body Problem: A Cambridge Mystery

By Catherine Shaw,

Book cover of The Three Body Problem: A Cambridge Mystery

Why this book?

The Three Body Problem is a real-life unsolved math problem concerning the motion of three bodies (think a star and two orbiting planets), all acting on each other by the pull of gravity. Given their positions and movements at times, what will happen in the future? Will they eventually fly away or fall into the star?  

The Three Body Problem is also a mathematical mystery by Catherine Shaw (a pen name – shhh), set in Cambridge in Victorian times, which contains three actual dead bodies, all of the mathematicians working on the eponymous problem. Another mathematician, who knew all three well, is accused of the murders. Luckily for him, his fiancée, though not a mathematician herself, is as much a truth-seeker as any, and her actions unravel the mystery while the reader gets a close look into the world of maths and the people who do it. Our amateur detective clearly gets a taste for it, as this book is the first of a series!

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