Who would murder a mathematician? Not just murder — assassinate, with a bomb made from rocket fuel that incinerates an Amsterdam hotel room before James Fenster’s scheduled speech at a World Trade Organization conference. That’s the question, and the case, confounding veteran Interpol agent Henri Poincare.
The agent’s great-grandfather was Jules Henri Poincare, the 19th-century French philosopher and physicist noted for his work on chaos theory and fractals, which show how parts of a pattern found in nature mirror the whole shape. But the modern-day Poincare is concerned with crimes, not equations. Fenster’s death, with its aftertaste of terrorism, isn’t an everyday homicide, and Poincare tracks suspects from the Netherlands to the United States and beyond. A cast of strange characters ripples across his radar, including Fenster’s tight-lipped former fiancee, an ambitious graduate student who takes over Fenster’s Harvard classes, a hedge-fund manager interested in the professor’s work and even a cult of doomsayers called the Soldiers of Rapture.
No one is who he or she claims in the ever-evolving fractals of this case. Perhaps channeling his great-grandfather, Poincare attempts to find meaning in the man’s research: snowflakes, the leaves of a fern, a rickrack line of lightning, aerial maps. Do they really dovetail into ideas worth killing for? The book includes these and other illustrations so readers can ponder them with Poincare.
Unlike many fictitious sleuths, Poincare is no brooding loner. He cherishes life with his artist wife, his married son and his grandchildren. A farm near Lyon beckons Poincare to slip into retirement and enjoy more time with them. When a Serbian war criminal, brought to justice by Poincare, threatens the agent from prison, Interpol provides safety for his family, but Poincare chafes at the protective bubble and resumes work on the bombing case. Jolted by tragedy, Poincare grows more determined to fit the crime’s puzzle pieces into a frame of mathematical and human discovery.
Math wizards will delight in trying to unlock the intricacies of Fenster’s findings, but even math phobes who equate high school geometry with stomach spasms will enjoy this first-time novelist’s richly descriptive thriller. Here’s hoping Poincare dodges retirement and adds more adventures to his caseload.
Blumenstock is a Washington writer and editor.
ALL CRY CHAOS
By Leonard Rosen
The Permanent Press. 332 pp. $29