a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Chasing Vermeer (2004)
Blue Balliet
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A mystery novel for 6th graders. The first of a set of 3 separate “mystery” books in the “Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew“ genre. Two children, Calder and Petra, are neighbors and classmates at a school located on the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus. When a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, called “The Lady Writing” gets stolen while it is being transported to the Art museum in Chicago, they follow various clues to trace the missing painting.

The book is very nicely written for its intended audience and has a couple of novelties: first, Calder and his friend, Tommy, exchange messages using a substitution code throughout the book. The book gives the code in a tabular form and the messages in coded form. The young readers are expected to work through the substitution each time to see what the two friends are writing to each other in code. Second, throughout the book are nice illustration in which visual clues are displayed. The readers are expected to identify and then work with the clues to decode the special message of the book (solution at So the book maintains interactiveness with its audience in a sustained fashion.

Calder and Tommy are also ardent fans of the “Pentominoes”. As the book explains, “A set of pentominoes is a mathematical tool consisting of twelve pieces. Each piece is made up of five squares that share at least one side. Pentominoes are used by mathematicians around the world to explore ideas about geoemtry and numbers” (followed by the diagrams of the pentominoes).

Playing with combinations of pentominoes to create rectangles of various sizes spurs Calder to try combinations of words (When his Art teacher, Ms. Hussey, tells the class about Picasso's quote, “Art is a lie which tells a truth”, he wonders if he can come up with something similarly simple and deep by combining “art”, “lie” and “truth” in other ways. From there, he muses: "Maybe all of life was about rearranging a few simple ideas. If he could just get to those simple ideas, with a little practice, he'd be a cross between Einstein and that mathematician, Ramanujan — or maybe Ben Franklin."

When they try to teach an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Sharpe, about Pentominoes, she is unable to form rectangles and in frustration, asks them a combinatorial problem unwittingly, “How many, oh, five-letter words, say, could you make using at least three of these twelve letters in each word?”

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Works Similar to Chasing Vermeer
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Wright 3 by Blue Balliet
  2. Claudia and the Middle School Mystery (Baby-sitters Club) by Ann Martin
  3. The Witch of Agnesi by Robert Spiller
  4. Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano
  5. Pythagoras Eagle & the Music of the Spheres by Anne Carse Nolting
  6. The Square Root of Murder by Paul Zindel
  7. The Unknowns: A Mystery by Benedict Carey
  8. Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers by Pendred Noyce
  9. Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra by Wendy Lichtman
  10. Do the Math #2: The Writing on the Wall by Wendy Lichtman
Ratings for Chasing Vermeer:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (3 votes)

GenreMystery, Children's Literature, Young Adult,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)