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The Three Body Problem: A Cambridge Mystery    by Catherine Shaw order for
Three Body Problem
by Catherine Shaw
Order:  USA  Can
Allison & Busby, 2005 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

The fact that The Three Body Problem is billed as a Cambridge mystery is probably enough to entice many Anglophile mystery readers. But it has much more to offer, including the well-done late Victorian setting and a charming new protagonist in 20-year old Miss Vanessa Duncan. In some ways, this heroine reminds me of the young female librarian in Miriam Grace Monfredo's well-written Seneca Falls mysteries, which are set in upstate New York in the mid 1800's. Vanessa is newly arrived in 1888 Cambridge to teach at a small school for girls. The entire narration, conveyed through letters back to her twin sister at their country home, is surprisingly effective.

Some authors creating heroines from earlier times seem to just dress thoroughly modern women in historical clothing. Shaw gives Vanessa the authentic voice of a young inexperienced woman away from home for the first time, in a period when there were limited opportunities for well-bred females and many restrictions on their behavior. Cambridge in 1888 is dominated by the university, and Vanessa is drawn into the affairs of the Mathematics Department through the family of one of her students, and her growing friendship with her upstairs neighbor, attractive young mathematics fellow Arthur Weatherburn. Many of the brilliant Cambridge mathematicians are working to solve the famous three body problem, hoping to win recognition and a prize from the Birthday Competition sponsored by the King of Sweden.

First, one mathematician is murdered and then another, suspiciously both after they dined with Weatherburn. He is put on trial for murder. Shaw includes just enough of the math involved in this true life competition to give the book depth. Vanessa's growing friendship with Arthur draws her into investigating the crimes, with only her mind and her indomitable spirit to help her, and all the mores of the time to constrict her. She faces a tough battle, since the trial prosecutor seems eager to pin the murder of several mathematicians on another one, saying that madness lies in wait, ready to strike any mathematician. He feels that though it may not be visible, it seethes inside, silently seeking an outlet.

Shaw skillfully portrays the Cambridge ambience and the competitive politics within the university. In addition, she has created a very appealing young heroine, one who pushes the boundaries of her times to right the injustice being done to a young man who has become very dear to her.

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