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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Strip Search

Strip Search, by William Bernhardt, is an irritating novel.

Why do I say that? Well, it’s not just because Bernhardt portrays math teachers as weird and psychotic, though that’s certainly a major part of it. And it’s not just because the plot is so implausible, though that too is part of it. And it’s not just that the book is riddled with mathematical errors, though of course that definitely bothered me. And it’s not just that the amount of violence is excessive and unnecessarily explicit, though that would certainly put off many readers. No, the most irritating characteristic of Strip Search is that it reads like a “good idea” that someone had. My impression is that someone said to the author, “Here’s a proposal for a novel. Go write it.” Not surprisingly, a coherent novel was not the result.

You may wonder why I started reading this book. In the past I’ve found Bernhardt to be a competent and engaging writer, even if not a memorable one. And I had heard that Strip Search featured a combination of mathematics (equations left as clues at each crime scene) and a major character (Darcy) who’s an autistic savant. No math teacher could resist that enticing combination. Some readers (in customer reviews on Amazon, for instance) were annoyed by the characters and found none of them likeable. Personally I didn’t have that problem, although I can see why others might. But anyone who has taught students who have Asperger’s or autism will find Darcy likeable enough, to coin a phrase. And the detective is no more unlikeable than many a highly flawed protagonist.

You may also wonder why I bothered finishing Strip Search if I was so irritated by it; I’m not one of those people who feel compelled to finish a book once they’ve started it. But I kept irrationally hoping that things would get better, that there would be a good reason for all the flaws. Unfortunately I was wrong, so here is your warning. Don’t read this post any further if you’re intending to read Strip Search, as I can’t write what I need to write without introducing spoilers.

*** SPOILER ALERT*** SPOILER ALERT *** SPOILER ALERT ***

OK, so we have a detective who’s actually a police psychologist (the protagonist) and fits into the genre stereotypes of being insubordinate and an alcoholic. Later she turns to pills. She is a psychologist without a doctorate, and she reaches most of her conclusions by intuition and guesswork. Since she’s also the first-person narrator, I’ve forgotten her name. Oh, that’s right, it’s Susan.

But don’t think that Bernhardt extends genre stereotypes to gender stereotypes. No, we also have Esther Goldstein, a female mathematician who not only teaches math but also has apparently solved the Riemann Hypothesis (misspelled “Reimann” throughout the book). For reasons that apparently stem in some undefined way from an unhappy childhood, she is also reviving the ancient Pythagorean religion, the Brethren of Purity. Unfortunately she also turns out to be a psychotic mass murderer. But then again she is a math teacher, so you can’t expect her to be normal, can you? “Math has been riddled with positively brilliant madmen,” as she explains at one point.
  • The sympathetic characters, such as police lab technician Amelia, say things like, “I gave up on math after my second semester of algebra.”
  • Susan, even though she presumably has at least a master’s degree in psychology, says, “I hadn’t taken a math class since junior high school.”
  • The puzzle expert says, “I’m a word boy. Left brain. Math freaks are a whole different breed. And this doesn’t look like a real puzzle anyway. How can you solve an equation if you don’t have any of the numbers?
Bernhardt’s mathematical errors include confusing variables with unknowns and referring to expressions as equations. For example, on page 161, we have this excerpt:
It was another equation:
(p-1)!+1, all over p
Bernhardt’s account of the Pythagoreans’ attitude toward the irrationality of the square root of 2 is also muddled. For instance, Esther, the professional mathematician who’s an expert on the Pythagoreans, says, “The square root of two was a problem with no solution.”

OK. That’s enough. Don’t bother reading the book.

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