Now here's an interesting book to find myself reviewing! There is no shortage of fiction claiming to include math in some way. That said, there are also hardly any books that contain believable math, books where the reader (if the reader happens to know some math herself) can tell that the author actually knows some math. Not only does this book have mathematicians as characters and talk about math, it is almost exclusively set in the "math world."
The author of this murder mystery is Miriam Webster. Miriam Webster (get it?) is the nom de plume for Amy Babich, Ph.D. in mathematics. Babich also has a Masters degree in classics, and one sees genuine knowledge of both fields in the book. She is also quite involved with environmental politics, and this is somewhat apparent. For example, it is significant that the name of the town is "Tinny Waters."
The story starts with the murder of Ray Bellwether, Mathematics Graduate Advisor at a large research university in Texas. Bellwether's ghost, together with a contingent of other ghosts (from among the faculty and graduate student cohort) spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who the murderer is. The plot is pretty good, and reasonably gripping. I certainly won't tell you who the murderer is, or anything more of how this person is found out.
The story is told through the eyes of a graduate student and this I found mostly plausible and realistic. There are very accurate portrayals of what it is like to be a new graduate student in a math department, what it is like to be a TA, and what the horrifying "preliminary exams" are like. There are foreign graduate students, department secretaries, spectral sequences, the works. Even the Notices of the AMS get a mention (p. 110). However, the numerous incidents and lengthy accounts of sex and drinking amongst graduate students and faculty members are exaggerated and make the story unbelievable. Mind you, the fact that several of the characters are ghosts is also hard to take on board, but you know that is fake. I know I am getting old and may well just be out of touch with such things, but I think the days of wild parties, drinking, and publicly acknowledged sex between students and faculty members have pretty much died, since around the early 1980s.
Portrayals of mathematicians in fiction are predictable — we are smart and nice and witty and, sometimes, even surprisingly (!) sexy. Yet, for any variety of reasons, we make somewhat undesirable social company. There is some of this flavor of stereotyping in After Math. For example, on page 28 we find that "mathematicians are notoriously ineffectual in the face of spilled liquor." Most mathematicians I know are perfectly capable when it comes to spilled liquor. I wonder, what is the point of such a comment? Maybe I am overly sensitive. Another offensive example is found on page 53, when one of the characters (yes, a mathematician, but, as I said before, very few characters in this story are not mathematicians) has to check that he actually put on clothes before coming in to the department. Now I, probably like you, chuckle at such amusing peculiarities of our colleagues (of course, I am not like this at all!). But, if we indulge in maintaining these images of mathematicians, no one else will break the cycle for us. If we want a different image, we must take responsibility. Maybe I should just lighten up.
One interesting, and arguably positive, characteristic of mathematicians in this book is that many of them can see ghosts that elude others; this could be meaningful.
I like the style of writing. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, great literature, but Webster is witty, and good with words. The book reads well. One technique that she uses quite successfully is her use of becoming the narrator, to "step outside" of the story and tell you what she, the author, is thinking. In this, she is imitating (and acknowledges that she is doing so) Anthony Trollope.
I did enjoy this book and highly recommend it to mathematicians. Add it to your summer reading list.
Karen Saxe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College. Her first book Beginning Functional Analysis is recently published and she serves on the editorial boards of The College Mathematics Journal and Math Horizons}. She regularly teaches Macalester's liberal arts math course and, as such, tries to read all fiction and see all movies that have, even in some very peripheral way, a connection to mathematics.