Science of Mysteries

I have a weakness for mystery novels. It started with Agatha Christie when I was around 10 and progressed from there. Genre fiction is often panned as sub-par writing but that’s hooey. There is sub-par writing across the board, genre or no genre, and in every discipline. You just have to know where to look, who to ask and to try new authors by checking books out of the library so you don’t waste money on a book that isn’t good enough to finish reading (and because supporting libraries is always a good idea).

I spent about 6 months this year reading every northern European mystery writer who has been translated into English. Maybe not all of them. There were a couple I didn’t like. The authors I read all have a dark sensibility and a knack for complex character development. I read so many of them, I started to run out of authors so I took a break. I need something to come back to when my mystery craving returns.

Well, that may have happened thanks to three women science writers, all from literary origins, who decided to team up and each write a post on science in specific mysteries and then publish their posts on the same day. The idea is quite clever and well executed. The writers they chose were icing on the cake for me because they chose two of my favorites. Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics wrote about Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Deborah Blum of Speakeasy Science wrote about Dorothy Sayer’s Strong Poison and Ann Finkbeiner of The Last Word on Nothing wrote about Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise. They are all well worth a read (blog posts and books) and they each did a stellar job of combining literature and science in one essay, which is no surprise. Each of their blogs is a pleasure to read.

Sayers was a scholar in religious studies and wrote her own translations of Dante among others. She was one of the first women in England to receive an advanced degree, though she had to wait a few years until Oxford changed their rules on women  to receive the actual degree. They were previously allowed to study but would not be graduated. She eventually gave up mystery writing to pursue scholarly work. Her series of four books, which feature both of her main characters, Strong Poison, Gaudy Night, Have His Carcase (pronounced carcass) and Busman’s Honeymoon are still great reads 80 years later (Busman’s Honeymoon being the lesser of the three to my mind, though undoubtedly, someone disagrees). Have His Carcase would be a good topic for the science of mysteries as the digraph substitution cipher and cryptanalysis are central to the plot.

Josephine Tey wrote The Daughter of Time, which I will inevitably write a post about one of these days. At its heart, the novel is about the subjectivity of history. Another one of her mysteries, Brat Farrar, has plot elements that are echoed in the French movie Olivier, Olivier. Tey’s version isn’t quite as dark and atmospheric. I can’t explain the similarities or differences without divulging the plot so read the book, watch the movie and discover them for yourself.

- via Cocktail Party Physics

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