Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Murder and Math

The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of Rene Decartes.
Novel by Andrew Pessin.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

“The first [principle] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” –Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

Seventeenth century intellectual Rene Descartes was a nerd’s nerd. And by that I mean he was the father of modern western thought, responsible for historic leaps in mathematics, science, and philosophy, from mathematical mainstays like the four quadrant grid, to the Cartesian mind/body dualism that paved the way for virtual realities like The Matrix and Ready Player One.

Descartes survived military service in the tumultuous Thirty Years War and lived to the ripe old age of fifty-three (remember, the average life expectancy was about forty back then). He ended his life as an adviser to the Swedish crown, beloved by all.

Well, perhaps not all. Perhaps he was murdered by one of his many enemies!

Yes, whether Rene Descartes succumbed to a) natural causes, b) complications from Three Musketeer-era medicine, or c) assassination by poison has been a point of contention among scholars for centuries and is now the subject of a new mystery novel, The Irrationalist, by Andrew Pessin.

In his first work of historical fiction, Pessin spins a tale of a troubled childhood, the trials and travails of the “greatest mind of the age,” and the mysteries surrounding his death in Stockholm in 1650.

When not following the doomed man himself, the narrative is from the perspective of Adrien Baillet, a young and inexperienced French Jesuit, dispatched by the powers that be to confirm that Descartes, a son of Catholic France, had not met with foul play in Protestant Sweden.

Did some rogue Protestant members of the Swedish court fear Descartes was on a mission to convert their monarch, Queen Christina, to Catholicism? Did his doctor keep on recommending bloodletting because of the medical limitations of the day or because he had reasons to make sure Descartes never left the sick bed. And why were two known enemies of Descartes, a disgruntled, estranged brother and a jealous mathematical rival stalking the streets of Stockholm looking to catch Descartes by surprise? The court librarian believes that Descartes was a member of one of Europe's secret societies, The Rosicrucians. He spins tales of plots and counterplots so outlandish that Adrian can only smile and nod politely, as you or I would if approached by a stranger on the street who explains to us that JFK was assassinated by Bigfoot. But maybe the librarian’s conspiracy theories aren’t as outlandish as they seem…

The death of such a luminary might endanger the tenuous peace between the two nations and as Adrien digs for the truth he starts to feel the pressure mount to drop the case. To the Swedes he is annoyance, while the French just want him to rubberstamp the official cause of death and come home. But like Descartes, the amateur detective is determined to set aside his presumptions and seek the ultimate truth.

I’m not sure if I can go into much more detail without giving away the mystery or the joy of meeting the characters and the history involved, but I had a lot of fun with The Irrationalist. It works great as historical fiction, giving a real sense of the time with a murder mystery as a great hook to pull the reader through the biography of one of the West's great thinkers. One doesn’t need to be overly familiar with Descartes’ work or the era because everything is laid out so well. I was also pleased that this wasn’t a mystery in the beach read tradition of The Da Vinci Code or the cheesy pulp tradition of National Treasure, where we find out the great thinkers of history spent their days hiding Easter eggs in art and monuments to set up a treasure hunt centuries later.

So if you’d like to learn a bit more about a figure key to western thought and want a good murder mystery while you do it than I would highly recommend The Irrationalist.

P.S. Full Disclosure: I had the pleasure of taking some philosophy courses from Andrew Pessin at Connecticut College (Go Camels!), back when I was a member of the Class of...I’m feeling old.

P.P.S. For more seventeenth century adventure, this time with time-traveling Americans gumming up the works, check out Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series. See a review of the first installment, 1632, here on Nerds Who Read.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at