Are you looking for a good murder mystery, perhaps something to read while taking a break from marking mathematics exams? Have you ever wondered if there is anything in mathematics that could ignite passions to die for? Is there, has there ever been in the history of mathematics any problem worth dying for — or more accurately, any problem whose solution is worth killing for?
Pythagorean Crimes, by Tefcros Michaelides, is a double murder mystery, a thriller of the mind, a carefully crafted tale of a friendship. This is a story within a story. One story opens in Athens, in 1929, the morning the body of Stefanos Kantarzis is found dead in his apartment. His friend of 30 years, Michael Igerinos, is being questioned by the police. As he stands in his friend’s apartment, confirming the dead man’s identity, Michael recalls his first meeting of Stefanos nearly thirty years earlier.
The two young mathematicians, then both students, were attending the Second International Congress of Mathematics, which was held in Paris in August 1900. There, Stefanos recognized Michael as a fellow countryman — both were students from Greece in Paris for the ICM — and introduced himself. They listened to a lecture given by the famous professor, David Hilbert, which had the enticing title, “On Future Problems in Mathematics.” In this lecture, Hilbert challenged those present with a set of 23 problems that set the course for much mathematical research in the Twentieth Century. Over the years, as the lives of Michael and Stefanos intersected many times and in various ways, they often shared with each other their efforts to solve one or another of the problems set by Hilbert in that lecture. On the evening before he was murdered, Stefanos had played chess and discussed mathematics with his friend as they did every Thursday.
Nestled into this story as Prelude, Interlude, and Coda is another story, set in Ancient Greece, which foreshadows this tragic story of friendship and scholarship on several levels.
In a Postscript to the novel, the author assures us that while this novel is a work of fiction, the setting of the tale is accurate in all of its historical, geographical, scientific, and technological details. A 40-page glossary provides a wealth of biographical, sociological, mathematical, and historical detail that adds to the reader’s enjoyment of this story without distracting from the story.
If you are looking for something to read on either a cold winter evening or a lazy summer afternoon, I highly recommend Pythagorean Crimes. I enjoyed this novel even more on a second reading.
Sr. Barbara E. Reynolds, SDS, is Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science at Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee, WI.