I picked up Robert Spiller’s Irrational Numbers with the idea that I would be exposed to a Raymond Smullyan-esque book containing both mathematics and mystery in equal doses. After all, the blurb promises that the principal character, Bonnie Pinkwater, is a full-time mathematics teacher who solves mysteries at opportune moments partly using her knowledge of mathematics. Bonnie lives in East Plains, Colorado, and is constantly in conflict with the school superintendent, Xavier Divine.
Bonnie can be labelled as a “feisty” (the most overused word in America when it comes to describing a woman who can be smart, or obnoxious, or self-sufficient) lady of fifty or thereabouts who shares her home with several pets. She has a boyfriend who has nothing to do with the story except come up at several points to create a few question marks in her life.
The main plot of Irrational Numbers deals with the murder of an ex-pupil of hers who was at one time the school’s Grade A student and star basketball player, much loved by the East Plains folk. He fell from grace when he came out of the closet.
He is found dead with Bonnie’s phone number in his pocket, so she is summoned to the local police station by the officer investigating the case (another ex-student). The story plods on with a host of characters who all seem to have major problems in their lives - a bronco-busting female friend, a fire-and-brimstone-breathing pastor, his son who is a friend of the deceased, and so on…
Sadly, the story has very little to do with mathematics but everything to do with a score of similar potboilers, which, had they been larger, could have been shipped off to London to serve as a wrapping for fish and chips. There are some chronological errors: the primary deceased person is taunted with references to Brokeback Mountain before he dies. Calculating dates, the book is set in 2004; Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005.
An M24 rifle, which plays an important part in the story, is described as having been developed by the Marines for use in Vietnam, and an ex-army sniper hefts it with familiarity. However, the M24 rifle was adopted for military use in 1988, long after the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam.
The students in a summer class that Bonnie teaches, an ‘Accelerated Women in Mathematics’ course, seem to spend more time discussing menstruation than mesuration. A well-known female Russian mathematician is adjudged to have died of a broken heart rather than of illness, by that mathematically exact form of reasoning known as intuition. This intuition also plays an important role in solving the identity of the murderer.
On the whole, Irrational Numbers is a book I would not choose to have with me on a desert island.