a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Touch-Me-Not (2010)
Cynthia Riggs

In this installment of a series of mystery novels set on Martha's Vineyard, an electrician accidentally murders an employee who was blackmailing him and then is killed himself. Throughout most of the novel, the only reference to mathematics is the existence of a character in the background, recently retired from her job as a math professor at Northeastern University, who runs an interesting mathematical knitting circle. She is said to have taken the "equations" for interesting mathematical surfaces (Möbius strips, Klein bottles, and projective planes) and turned them into patterns so that the other women in the group can construct them out of yarn. Ignoring the fact that two of these surfaces cannot be embedded in 3-dimensional Euclidean space, this is a cute idea, and as I neared the end of the book I had begun to expect that there would be nothing else for me to discuss here.

As it turns out, there is a bit more I can say, but to do so necessarily involves giving away essential information about the final chapter. So, if you plan to read the book you should stop reading at this point for the sake of your own enjoyment. (If you have enjoyed other books by Riggs in this series, you might want to do so. However, I must admit, I cannot say that I would strongly recommend this book to anyone.)

----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----
----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----
----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----
----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----
----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----
----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----
----- spoiler warning ---- stop reading now if you don't want to know "whodunnit" -----

Okay, so here is how it turns out!

As a college student, the retired math professor was originally a physics major. She was forced to switch majors after she became obsessed with and began stalking one of her physics professors. Coincidentally, years later when she was a math professor, one of the math majors happened to be the son of the physics professor that she had loved. This student switched majors when this professor became obsessed with and started stalking him. In fact, he switched from being a math major to being an electrician. As an electrician on Martha's Vineyard, he was installing hidden cameras in the bathrooms of female clients, until one of his employees found out. This brings us back to the beginning of the story, where he kills that employee, and then the retired math professor kills him (with a knitting needle).

So, in summary, there are two murders in the story. One is committed by a former math major who records videos of women taking showers in their own homes, and the other is committed by a former math professor who (in addition to being humorless and a murderer) is prone to develop inappropriate obsessions for her professors and/or students. This bothers me to the extent that it reflects and reinforces a negative stereotype of people who do math.

Contributed by Sarah-Marie Belcastro

You know how the fictional mathematical knitting group is working on a coral reef? Creating a coral reef from yarn has been done (and keeps being done all over the world) but using crochet, not knitting. No one knits coral. Moreover, the same pattern is used for all these corals, that of segments of hyperbolic plane and/or pseudospheres. The pattern originated with Daina Taimina (Cornell).

There have been knitting patterns for Mobius strips for decades, and for Klein bottles and projective planes more recently. (They're all on my webpages, so easy to access.)

Knitted Mobius strips, Klein bottles, and projective planes look *nothing* like coral or kelp. As far as I know, there is nothing in biology that is nonorientable. Certainly not sea life!

It looks to me like the author consulted the Wikipedia page on mathematical knitting and completely misunderstood it. A slight bit of googling would have corrected her impressions, as she could see with her own eyes that the nonorientable surfaces are quite dissimilar to hyperbolic planes.

I would actually give the mathematical content a 0 out of 5 myself, for this reason. And for literary content, at most a 1 out of 5---the author does a good job of describing plant life, but also says things like "…ran a comb through her thick hair, curled tightly in the humidity," which is just impossible. No one with tightly curled hair can run a comb through it. Bah!

Note: The mathematical content rating is not intended to be a mathematical accuracy rating. It measures how central mathematics is to the work, e.g. whether it is just marginal to the plot or whether it is really quite essential. Whether the math is misrepresented is important also, but that is a separate issue.

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Touch-Me-Not
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Secrets to the Grave by Tami Hoag
  2. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
  3. The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny
  4. Murder by Mathematics by Hector Hawton
  5. The Crimson Cipher by Susan Page Davis
  6. The Invention of Zero [Die Erfindung der Null] by Michael Wildenhain
  7. Trueman Bradley: Aspie Detective by Alexei Maxim Russell
  8. Los crímenes de Alicia [The Alice Murders / The Oxford Brotherhood] by Guillermo Martinez
  9. The Mentalist (Episode: 18-5-4) by Bruno Heller (writer) / Leonard Dick (writer) / Charles Beeson (director)
  10. Fermat's Room (La Habitacion de Fermat) by Luis Piedrahita / Rodrigo Sopeña
Ratings for Touch-Me-Not:
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:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)

MotifEvil mathematicians, Mental Illness, Female Mathematicians, Mobius Strip/Nonorientability,

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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)