The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison

I saw a review of this in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The sleuth is a Math(s) teacher – check. She likes puzzles – check. She likes beading at the local bead shop – well, no, but, as the mighty Meatloaf once sang, two out of three ain’t bad. This is a book that ought to appeal to any puzzle-solving Maths teacher, with or without a beading obsession.

Dr Sophie Knowles is a Maths professor at Henley College, Massachusetts, but when the most disliked professor on campus is murdered (well, he did teach chemistry) and Sophie’s assistant Rachel is the most likely suspect, she springs into action to eliminate (and I quote) “the lowest common denominator from campus”.

This is the first adventure for Sophie Knowles, and for Ada Madison, but she has published a number of chemistry murder mysteries under the name Camille Minichino and several more concerning miniatures and doll-houses as Margaret Grace. So, will I be investigating her pseudonyms?

Well obviously not the doll-house ones. I have my limits.

This is what is generally known as a cozy mystery. Minimal violence and populated by mostly nice people. I find it odd that this genre is often referred to as emulating the Agatha Christie school of writing as Dame Agatha’s books are often filled with human, nasty people. Whereas the cozy mysteries that I have read tend to be filled with rather unbelievable people.

Take this one, for example. Sophie is practically perfect in every way. All her students love her – well, obviously, she’s a Maths teacher, what’s not to love?, she has lovely friends to help her with her beading, she’s a successful puzzle writer and solver and she has a perfect boyfriend, the medical helicopter pilot, Bruce.  For some reason, I kept thinking of Bruce as Astronaut Mike Dexter. To explain, “Astronaut Mike Dexter” is the lead character’s idealised imaginary boyfriend in the TV show 30 Rock. There seemed to be a certain element of wish fulfilment in the writing, accentuated by the book being in the first person. Now I don’t have problem with this sort of writing at all, as long as it’s coupled with a decent mystery plot. But I imagine some people would. I’d go as far as saying this book falls under the category of über-cozy, if I hadn’t just heard about the doll-house series!

But I do have two problems with this book, and one of them is very personal.

I know a lot of Mathematics and I know a lot about puzzles, so I had high hopes for reading about two major parts of my life, but unfortunately the book succumbs to a common problem when Mathematics hits the real world – it gets dumbed down.

To give an example, in the UK there is an excellent quiz show called University Challenge where two teams from British universities compete against each other to answer rock-hard questions on practically anything. Except in Mathematics, where the questions, to a Maths undergraduate at least, are generally trivial. The reason for this, I presume, is that if you ask proper testing questions in this area, the audience won’t even understand the question, let alone the answer. Similarly here, some Mathematics concepts are name-checked, and that’s about it, apart from some very odd phrases – as an example, “it stood out like a prime number”. No Mathematician would say that – 25% of the first 100 whole numbers are prime. That’s like saying “it stood out like a man over forty in a crowd of randomly mixed people” – i.e. not at all. If you were that sort of Mathematician who says things like that, you could say “like a perfect number”, or “like a Mersenne prime”, but then the casual reader wouldn’t know what on earth you were talking about. And most of the people who read this book will be casual readers, if they aren’t put off by the Maths mentions on the cover. Ditto the brain teasers that are included in the back of the book. These chestnuts are so old that anyone who has seen a puzzle book ever will know these – the St Ives rhyme for example.

And so to problem two. You would have thought that if the author loved puzzles so much, then the central problem would be an absolute brainteaser – and it’s not by any means. The critical clue comes very late in the narrative but appears in such a way that anyone versed in detective fiction will spot the murderer almost immediately. I’d guessed their identity earlier in the book, as there seemed to be one character who seemed to have no role in the plot other than simply being there and saying things, and it wasn’t too much of a leap to piece together their frankly idiotic plan. The back of the book describes a (groan) “calculating murderer” – well this one got their sums wrong. Oh god, now I’m doing it…

But… there is a charm to this book. I  doubt I’ll be investigating the back catalogue, but I’ll keep one eye open for the further adventures of Professor Sophie Knowles. The characters, for all their perfections, have some warmth and personality to them, even Astronaut Mike Dexter, and it’s always nice to see an attempt to bring Maths to the masses. Let’s hope there some more proper Maths in the next one.

I’m counting this as the Massachusetts leg of The Mystery Tour of the USA and I make no apologies for repeated referring to Maths instead of Math, despite it being set in the USA. Because I’m right.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Ada Madison, Camille Minichino, Margaret Grace, Mystery Tour of the USA, Sophie Knowles. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison

  1. Patrick says:

    Speaking as the disinterested Canadian party, we do say “math” here… However, in our defense, we have retained the “u” in words like “colour”. After all, we were technically a part of Great Britain until our Constitution was ratified in the 80s…

    It’s a shame this book doesn’t deliver on the math level. Speaking as someone who has only taken three math courses (2 in calculus and one in stats) in my university career, I’m no expert, but the “prime number” analogy immediately got me to to perk up and think to myself… “what?”

    I also agree that the “cozy” style is nothing like what Dame Agatha ever wrote. (See my rant against the word “cozy” for more on that front: http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.com/2011/11/rant-against-word-cozy.html ) It’s one of the things my “Ten Little Indians” series is out to disprove. I’m going to try to make it a once-a-week thing and milk the idea for all it’s worth. ;)

    Ah, and I forgot to say– I also subscribed to EQMM. Hey, that’s what Kindles are for! :)

    • That’s a great article Patrick – highly recommended.

      Of course there is plenty of books published these days, like this one, that have made the term cozy almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. By a number of writers effectively failing to copy Christie by missing the undercurrents therein and also the depth of the plotting (usually), the genre of the modern cozy now does exist – this book certainly fits the description. But even the Hamish Macbeth book that I reviewed a while back, Death of a Scriptwriter had dark characters. OK, I really disliked the book, but I’d stop short of calling it a cozy novel.

      To be honest, this is one of the reasons that I don’t dwell on a single genre – even the historical is only part of my reading. One name, being it hard-boiled, cozy, historical, etc, covers so many sorts of books that it renders the title redundant. So I just read what I feel like reading – seems a lot easier than thinking about it too much.

  2. I do hate it when these “cozy” style books make a point of being (in this instance) a “math(s)” book or knitting or whatever and then fall down on the job a bit in delivery. But that won’t keep me from trying this out. As I told you, academic mysteries are one of my weaknesses, so I’ll be on the lookout for one of hers.

    • I’d have been less fussed if the blurb hadn’t trumpeted “puzzles and brainteasers included” but it’s a pleasant enough read – and it’s portrait of academic life is one of its stronger points, I think. This is the only one of this series so far, by the way.

  3. Mrs P. says:

    This sounds like a fun read at some point. I’ve never really given the ‘cozy’ a fair go (I suspect they are too nice and wholesome for me), but I love a good campus murder and am intrigued by the incorporation of the maths puzzle element. I know next to nothing about mathematical concepts, so it’ll probably be just the right level for me.

    Interesting how the author has focused on those specific angles – chemistry, maths … and doll-houses (?!). I had no idea that such niche markets existed within the crime-reading world!

    • A quick search reveals there are many themes that astound me that they generate a series – The Tea-Shop Murders for example. At some point, I’ll try and look at these properly, but I might need a lot of patience.

  4. cminichino says:

    Camille/Ada/Margaret reporting in! Thanks to Puzzle Doctor for taking the time to review The Square Root of Murder — very fair, I must say.

    May I offer a copy of the next in the series (The Probability of Murder, due March 6) to Puzzle Doctor and to anyone who has commented here. Send your address to me at camille@minichino.com with Square Root in the subject line, and I’ll send one off, anywhere in the world, (s) or (u) or not!

  5. Bill Selnes says:

    I am often frustrated when reading legal mysteries when the author gets some basic court procedure wrong especially in the area of questions. I know sometimes it is intentional as the authors believe they need to write the scene in a certain way for dramatic effect. I say they could write it properly and achieve a better dramatic effect. Enough on my rant. I enjoyed the review.

    • Oh, there’s nothing factually wrong with the maths – just not enough of it to keep a mathematician happy, which is understandable as enough maths to keep me happy is more than enough to put almost everyone else off reading it!

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