Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Fractal Murders (book) by Mark Cohen

Jayne Smyers, a Boulder (Colorado) math professor specializing in fractal mathematics, hires Nederland (also Colorado) private eye Pepper Keane to look into the deaths of 3 professors who were also researching fractals. Although each person died in a different way (rape and murder, robbery and bullet to the head, apparent suicide) and each person lived in a different state, Jayne can't help but suspect that their deaths were connected, despite the fact that federal agents investigating the deaths couldn't find a connection. As he investigates, Pepper begins to agree with Jayne. Unfortunately, Pepper has to figure out which one of several potential suspects committed the murders.

Pepper is an interesting guy - he's a former Marine JAG who still occasionally writes briefs for a little extra money, he's a bit obsessive (as part of his investigation, he reads everything the victims and suspects ever published, which is how he uncovers things that the feds missed), he has depression that he controls with medication, and he's interested in philosophy (the philosopher he's trying to read and understand in this book is Heidegger). Pepper's obsessive nature means that as he's learning about fractals, economics, and Heidegger's philosophy, so is the reader - I found these parts to be interesting, but not everyone may feel the same. Pepper lives alone with his two dogs (one of them had lived in an abusive home before being adopted by Pepper), although he hopes to one day fall in love and get married. He was once in love with someone, but she was killed in a car crash - one of the feds Pepper is up against in this book was behind the wheel when the accident happened. In this book, Pepper takes the inadvisable (in my opinion) step of dating his client. I was surprised that the investigation never complicated their relationship, although things are a little rocky between the two of them by the end of the book.

Besides Pepper himself, another appeal of this book is all the locations, which are nicely described - since all (or almost all) of the locations in this book are listed in one way or another in the short author biography in the back of the book, I'm assuming he knew what he was talking about. Besides University of Colorado at Boulder and Nederland, Colorado, Pepper also travels to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washinton and Lincoln, Nebraska (and probably other places I'm forgetting at the moment). Cohen is a graduate of Whitman College and the University of Colorado School of Law, he practiced law for many years in Nebraska, he now lives in Nederland, and he's one of two municipal judges for the City of Boulder (at least at the time this book was first published) - basically, he writes what he knows in this book, which makes me wonder what else he's got left for future books in this series. This, by the way, is the first book in the series - as far as I know, there's only one other book, Bluetick Revenge.

Had I read the author biography before beginning this book, I might have decided not to read it. I'd have wondered if Cohen, a municipal judge, would've been too busy carefully watching his words to write a good story. While he may have done so (although he does make cracks about Boulder's yuppie concentration, and there are a few jokes of a political nature), it was still an enjoyable read. Pepper's way of investigating, which involves a lot of reading, thinking, and questions, with only a smidgen of the kind of actions that might lead to dangerous situations, might make this book a little too slow-paced for some.

Read-alikes:
  • Early Autumn (book) by Robert B. Parker - Spenser, a private investigator, is hired by a woman to rescue her 15-year-old son from her ex-husband. Spenser ends up mentoring and protecting the boy as he investigates both parents. Those who'd like something similar in style to Cohen's book might want to try this.
  • Privileged Information (book) by Stephen White - This is the first book in White's suspenseful Alan Gregory series. Gregory, a therapist in Boulder, CO, comes under suspicion of sexual misconduct after several female patients die. Although a patient's role in the deaths is suggested during a session, it is privileged information. Gregory can't and won't violate the rules of confidentially. Instead, he begins investigating on his own. Those who'd like another mystery set in Colorado, with plenty of local flavor incorporated into the writing, might want to try this book.
  • Play Dead (book) by David Rosenfelt - Independently wealthy lawyer Andy Carpenter saves a golden retriever named Yogi from doggie death row and adopts him. Andy later learns that Yogi is actually Reggie, presumed dead 5 years earlier after the conviction of U.S. Customs Inspector Richard Evans for the murder of his fiancee. Andy, suspecting Richard's innocence, decides to investigate. Those who'd like another mystery and especially enjoyed Pepper's dogs may want to try this book.
  • Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra (non-fiction book) by John Derbyshire - As this book teaches readers about the development of algebra over time, readers will also learn about the various people who contributed to algebra. Those who enjoyed Pepper's explorations in the world of math may want to try this book.
  • How to Read Heidegger (non-fiction book) by Mark Wrathall and Simon Critchley - Readers who enjoyed Pepper's attempts to read and understand Heidegger may still find the idea of reading Heidegger themselves daunting. This book not only gives a short introduction to Heidegger's thought, it also (as the title says) teaches readers how to read Heidegger themselves.

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