Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

England, 1888


The Three Body Problem

A Cambridge Mystery

by Catherine Shaw

Vanessa Duncan, a young schoolmistress away from home for the first time, is swept into the world of Cambridge University’s math department just when three of its promising scholars are murdered. When her fellow lodger and budding love interest Arthur Weatherburn is accused of the deed, she becomes obsessed with proving his innocence. Central to the plot is the yearly historic math Birthday Competition (1846-1927) organized under the auspices of King Oscar II of Sweden. The solution to Isaac Newton’s famous but yet unsolved “n-body problem” is this year’s main problem. Given the scholars mutual snipping and need to produce creative work at a young age, there is thought that the scholars might have been eliminated because they were on their way to winning this prestigious prize.

The story will interest readers who love puzzles and the workings of mathematical formulas. To Vanessa’s surprise, women are beginning to breach the walls of Cambridge by attending two of its colleges. She also discovers that Germany and Sweden are ahead in allowing women to study, and hears about important personalities such as the inspired French mathematician Henri Poincaré and famous scholar Sonya Kovalevskaya. The puzzles created by Lewis Carroll for young people also are featured in the plot.

The author uses the device of telling the story through a series of letters written from Vanessa to her twin sister. Sometimes this works; other times it fails as the best way to convey the minute details of Vanessa’s day, her thoughts, and conversations. For example, the letters convey the complete transcripts of Weatherburn’s trial, and her own fifteen page intricate court defense of him in which she sounds more like a highly professional lawyer than the shy, protected, unsophisticated woman the author has portrayed her to be. One’s credulity is further strained when Vanessa takes a spur of the moment journey with two children in tow through three countries to reach Sweden, where she confronts Sweden’s leading mathematician, Gosta Mittag-Leffler, and later the Swedish king.

The is the first of the Vanessa Duncan series. The author, a mathematician, provides separated information about mathematical history.



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