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Strip Search (2007)
William Bernhardt

A detective is aided by an autistic child in capturing a serial killer who leaves equations written in the blood of his victims at the scenes of the grisly crimes.

Contributed by Stephen Wynn

In your MathFiction entry for William Bernhardt's "Strip Search," you [formerly said] that you haven't read the book, but would be interested in hearing from someone who has.

I have read the book, and your suspicions are correct: the book is gory, but the violence done to the victims is nothing like the violence done to the math.

Summary: Susan Pulaski is a profiler who works with the Las Vegas Police Department. She is called in to help investigate a string of brutal murders. At each crime scene, a mathematical equation or formula is left behind. To help with the math, Susan turns to the chief's son Darcy, an autistic-savant with a talent for mathematics. Eventually they catch the killer at the scene of a crime. But the murders don't stop: it turns out that the killer is only the love-slave of the mastermind, a UNLV professor of mathematics who has planned the murders as a Kabbalistic ritual to get God's attention. When her lover is detained, the professor continues the ritual right up to a showdown at the county courthouse.

Mathematics turns up at four of the six murders:

  1. The first murder takes place at a fast-food restaurant, and detectives find "(a+bn) / n = x" finger-painted in the grease.
  2. At the scene of the second murder, Darcy finds a scrap of paper inside a computer's CPU case with the "equation" ((P-1)!+1) / P. Darcy recognizes this as a "test for determining primes," and shortly afterward notices that the murders take place on prime dates: the 11th, the 13th, etc. [Ed. Note: Although there seem to be many mathematical mistakes in the book, this one at least seems to have some validity to it. In fact, according to Wilson's Theorem, this expression will be a whole number if and only if P is prime. It is not a very efficient way to check primality, but it does work. -Alex]
  3. At the scene of the third murder, two equations are written in the victim's blood. We aren't told what the equations are, but Darcy calculates their solutions to be the variables T and V. Pulaski returns to the scene discovers a videorecording of the murder in a TV/VCR.
  4. At the scene of the fourth murder, the killer leaves behind a scrap of paper with "mathematical" scribblings. Darcy concludes that the paper describes a numerological formula for selecting victims. Darcy & Pulaski apply the formula to discover the next victim, and catch the killer in the act.
In addition, after each murder, the killer dumps each victim's body at a certain distance from a "center." Darcy discovers the pattern: the center is the county courthouse, and each body has been dumped a Fibonacci number of miles from the courthouse.

After the first murder, Pulaski and Darcy consult with Esther Goldstein, a professor of mathematics at UNLV, not knowing that she is in fact the mastermind behind the murders. Their meeting with Dr. Goldstein is quite enlightening -- and most of it is available online at Google Books. The meeting takes place in Chapter 17, p. 134.

When Pulaski & Darcy arrive at UNLV, Goldstein is lecturing a class on "continuing fractions." [Ed. Note: Presumably she means "continued fractions", which are a representation of real numbers as an infinitely nested fraction. -Alex] She tells her class that "continuing fractions" are "fundamentally no different from simple fractions--except that instead of being able to reduce them in one, perhaps two steps, it's going to be more like, oh, fifty or a hundred steps." She recognizes that the calculations are very difficult but, she reassures the class, "Continuing fractions made it possible for men to go to the moon." She leaves three problems on the board, which Darcy calculates as being equivalent to 12, 87, and 6.429. Dr. Goldstein is impressed, because the first problem requires "thirty-two steps of reduction" and she doesn't expect any of her graduate students to solve all three.

Dr. Goldstein explains that her specialty is "cryptomathematics," a discipline which applies math "not simply as a way of solving problems but of understanding the mysteries of the world in which we live." They briefly discuss Newton, and Goldstein mentions that she did her dissertation on Newton. Pulaski shows her the equation from the first crime scene, and Goldstein identifies it as the equation that Euler once offered as proof of God's existence. [Ed. Note: This is a famous, but almost certainly false, anecdote about Euler and Diderot. See this article from the American Mathematical Monthly in 1942 for more information. -Alex] She then gives Pulaski a brief lecture on mysticism in mathematics. Among her more interesting claims:

Euler was "the first person to apply calculus to physics." (True, Goldstein did her dissertation on Newton -- but we later learn that it explored his "alchemical and biblical" work rather than his mathematics, so she may not have actually read the Principia.)

Euler was "the first to use the term function in a mathematical context." [Ed. Note: Certainly, the notion of "function" predates Euler. Like mathematical physics, the completely abstract notion of a function appears at least in the earlier works of Newton and Leibniz and at least in specific instances back to the Arab mathematicians of the Middle Ages. However, Euler did apparently introduce the now common notation "f(x)", though I have not yet found any evidence that he coined the term "function" for this. -Alex]

"Pythagoras proved a2 + b2 = c2 as applied to the sides of a triangle."

"Of course, today we have ways of expressing the square root of two, even if we can't exactly solve the problem."

"The famous mathematician Canzoni believed math had its own consciousness, which was evidenced in its physical manifestations in the world." (I have no idea who she's talking about -- could this be Cardano perhaps?)

The history of mathematics is full of brilliant madmen because -- like music and chess -- it is centered in the right brain. You don't find them in disciplines centered in the right brain, like Literature.

David Hulbert [sic] was one of the top mathematical theoreticians who ever lived.

Goldstein is "trying to posit a solution to the Reimann [sic] hypothesis." She explains: "Basically, if the Reimann hypothesis is false, then the the occurrence of prime numbers is essentially random. But if it's true, it implies that the occurrence of prime numbers is far more orderly than we are currently able to prove." [Ed. Note: The connection between proving the Riemann Hypothesis and understanding the distribution of primes is not so direct as is often claimed in mainstream media. Merely knowing where the zeroes of the zeta-function are will not tell us anything. However, it is possible that whatever techniques are used to resolve the question one way or the other will provide information about the primes since the function can be defined as a product involving the prime integers. - Alex]

Later in the book, we learn about Goldstein's early talent for mathematics, which she used as an escape from a difficult childhood. To deal with stress she used to see how high she could count in prime numbers: 1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19,...

In the climactic scene, Goldstein has planted a bomb at the county courthouse. Fortunately she includes a puzzle on the bomb, the solution to which will stop the bomb's timer. The puzzle involves "continuing fractions," so Darcy is able to solve it in the nick of time.

At the end of "Strip Search," it's discovered that Goldstein really has proved the "Reimann hypothesis."

Well, now I'm sorry that I never found time to read this book. Although I do not like gore and hate the myth of a link between mathematics and insanity that the book seems to promote, this author's attempt at mathematical fiction is almost comically bad and I think I could have enjoyed it for that reason alone. Thanks, Stephen!

Contributed by Anonymous

good book

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Works Similar to Strip Search
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen
  2. The Bishop Murder Case by S.S. van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright)
  3. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
  4. Trueman Bradley: Aspie Detective by Alexei Maxim Russell
  5. Murder by Mathematics by Hector Hawton
  6. The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny
  7. The Crimson Cipher by Susan Page Davis
  8. The Invention of Zero [Die Erfindung der Null] by Michael Wildenhain
  9. In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
  10. The Body Counter by Anne Frasier
Ratings for Strip Search:
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:
4/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (2 votes)

MotifEvil mathematicians, Mental Illness, Female Mathematicians, Autism, Isaac Newton,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

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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)