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Secrets to the Grave (2011)
Tami Hoag

Mathematician Zander Zahn is suspected of having murdered an artist in this follow-up to the novel "Deeper than the Dead". Almost no mathematics is actually discussed, not even the tiny amount one often sees in novels like this. However, I believe the author made this character a mathematician to capitalize on the stereotype of the "crazy mathematician".

I do not have to give away the solution to the mystery to tell you that, in fact, Zander Zahn is a murderer. We find out early on in this book that Zander murdered his mother when he was a child. However, since it was determined that he was in a disassociative state at the time, he was not prosecuted. In addition to this mental disorder, he is a hoarder (but hoards in a particularly organized way), has periods of mania, obsessively fears germs and touching other people, and is just difficult to talk to. But, he is such a brilliant mathematician (or so we are told, without any details) that the university says they are "lucky to have him in any capacity", even though he is so "socially challenged" that he cannot even teach a class.

I can think of two reasons that a person like this might wind up as a professional mathematician. Firstly, he probably would be drawn to the orderliness of mathematics as opposed to most other human endeavors. Moreover, even though mathematics is more of a social activity than most people think, success in mathematics probably depends more on the quality of one's work and less on extraneous personal factors than most other professions. So, I cannot say that this is particularly unrealistic (aside from the oddity of the particular constellation of symptoms described above). Nonetheless, I do worry that as it becomes a stereotype it will lead people to falsely assume that most (or even many) mathematicians are like this, or to assume that anyone who has symptoms like these must be a genius. These concerns are only somewhat addressed by the fact that Zahn does have an assistant, who "has advanced degrees in physics and mathematics from USC", dresses like "a Miami Vice drug lord" and is "undoubtedly as socially smooth as his mentor was socially awkward".

In the only scene where math is discussed explicitly, FBI agent Vince Leone tries to use a mathematical metaphor to convince Zahn to talk to them about what he knows:

(quoted from Secrets to the Grave)

"I don't want to add to your stress," Vince assured him. "I'm just thinking we could sit down for a few minutes and chat. You knew Marissa so well. You might have some useful insights you may not even be aware of.

"Do you know what I mean, Zander?" he asked. "Sometimes we know things that may not seem significant until put into another context. I'm sure it's the same in mathematics. A number is just a number until you assign it a purpose, right?"

Zahn put his head to one side like a quizzical bird, then slowly began to nod, pleased. "That's a very interesting statement, Vince. I like that, I like that."

His face took on a wondrous expression that made Mendez think the guy has some kind of psychedelic kaleidoscope hallucination going on in his head.

"So many people think of mathematics as being very static and absolute," he said. "But that's so wrong. It's thinking in the abstract that frees the mind to the greatest possibilities."

He spoke with as much passion and clarity as Mendez had heard out of him. His gaze then became acutely focused on Leone and he took a step closer to him. "We should talk about this, Vince."

Vince made a comical grimace. "I'm afraid you're already way ahead of me on the subject, Zander. Math was never my forte."

"Because you were undoubtedly taught by people trapped in the pedantic world of what I call `base academia.' And by base I mean `low' or `common' as opposed to basic."

He looked sharply at Nasser [his assistant] again. "Did you hear that, Rudy? Vince's thought? Contextual mathematics. This is another verbal approach to help us articulate how we want our students to open their minds to our subject. Don't you agree, Rudy?"

Nasser looked a bit pissed, Mendez thought. Or maybe "jealous" was a better word. His mentor had found favor in someone else. Interesting.

But he covered it well and replied, "It's brilliant. We should use that in orientation."

"Brilliant," Zahn said, tasting the word in his mouth like something buttery and smooth. "And you didn't think you knew that, did you, Vince?"

"No, I didn't,", Vince admitted. "See? It's like I said: you may have some piece of knowledge that -- unknown to you -- could help Marissa."

Zahn didn't seem quite so pleased at having the idea turned around on him, but he couldn't argue with the logic.

I do not think the author knows much of anything about mathematics. Aside from the discussion above, there is also a remark later in the book, when the investigators are looking through Zahn's belongings for clues, that a row of file cabinets "that had to be fourteen feet long and five feet high held nothing but math papers. It looked like every math paper Zahn had ever completed in his life". I do not think any mathematician has produced that many papers. I am not an especially prolific mathematician (you can see a list of my papers here), but I am not far at the other extreme either, and my papers fill just a single drawer. I think, perhaps, Hoag simply does not really mean "math paper" (a research paper published in a refereed journal); perhaps she has in mind every homework problem he did as a student or assigned as a professor? Or does she mean papers that he read rather than wrote?

As a mystery and as literature, I'm afraid I cannot say I thought this one was particularly good. From my perspective, it only excels as an example of the way that the stereotype of the insane mathematician is useful to authors. The reader immediately knows what to expect from this character: loss of touch with reality, lack of concern about people, brilliant logic interspersed with moments of utter insanity, etc. A perfect suspect for a mystery novel like this.

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Works Similar to Secrets to the Grave
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Touch-Me-Not by Cynthia Riggs
  2. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
  3. The Body Counter by Anne Frasier
  4. Trueman Bradley: Aspie Detective by Alexei Maxim Russell
  5. Los crímenes de Alicia [The Alice Murders / The Oxford Brotherhood] by Guillermo Martinez
  6. The Invention of Zero [Die Erfindung der Null] by Michael Wildenhain
  7. The Distant Dead by Heather Young
  8. Murder by Mathematics by Hector Hawton
  9. The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny
  10. The Theory of Death by Faye Kellerman
Ratings for Secrets to the Grave:
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)

MotifGenius, Evil mathematicians, Anti-social Mathematicians, Mental Illness, Academia, Autism,

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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)