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by Catherine Shaw
Allison and Busby, January 2004
286 pages
ISBN: 0749006927

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1888, King Oscar II of Sweden commissioned a prize competition in mathematics to celebrate his birthday. Among other topics, solutions were invited to the n-body problem, something that continues to intrigue mathematicians to this day. Catherine Shaw, the pseudonym of a mathematician and academic, uses this historical curiosity as the starting point of her first novel, which stars Vanessa Duncan, keeper of a small private school in Cambridge.

Mathematicians at Cambridge who are working on the competition are being murdered at an alarming rate. Worse, Vanessa's upstairs neighbour, himself a mathematics tutor, has been arrested and charged with the crimes on the flimsiest of evidence. Vanessa, activated both by a sense of justice and a growing fondness for the prisoner, determines to save him if she can.

While the premise is interesting enough, Catherine Shaw's reach in this novel exceeds her grasp. Not only must she succeed in interesting the general reader in a fairly abstruse mathematical problem, but she must also present a credible account of Cambridge in the late 19th century and it is here that she runs into considerable trouble.

For some inexplicable reason, she has chosen to write an epistolary novel, a form long out of date even in Vanessa's day, consisting of letters from Vanessa to her twin sister Dora. To keep the story moving, this form requires Vanessa to have a memory of stupefying retentiveness, such that she has no trouble at all reproducing pages of court testimony with an accuracy that a court stenographer would envy.

Then, in order to resolve the case, this poor 20-year-old schoolmistress, who has only ventured as far as London twice in her life, is required to make a lightning journey all the way to Stockholm and back in the company of one of her pupils, a 13-year-old girl.

It occurs to me that this book might do better were it marketed as a young adult one. It has elements of romance and some suspense that might make it attractive to younger readers. Presenting a maths problem as the starting point for a crime novel is a very good idea. But Catherine Shaw, who, we are told, is working on the second book in the series, would benefit from the help of a sympathetic editor to eliminate the rough spots and improbabilities. A quick course in the social history of Victorian Britain wouldn't hurt either.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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