How many references to famous L.A. landmarks does it take for a book to qualify as a classic L.A. crime book? What's the probability that familiar L.A. types — self-righteous vegetarians, slimy bookies, wealthy Beverly Hills widows — will all appear in the same book but in different stories? These mathematical mysteries and many more are solved in the pages of L.A. Math, James Stein's fun, entertaining and educational collection of short crime stories with a unique twist.
The odds of an author successfully putting a new spin on the old crime-fighting-duo trope are roughly as bad as the odds of hitting the Powerball. But Stein, a math professor emeritus at Cal State Long Beach, has come up with a fresh premise that really works as a literary device. Here we have Freddy Carmichael, a hard-working private investigator, and Pete Lennox, his lazy, mathematically gifted sidekick, who lives in front of the TV watching sports, making bets and casually providing the answer every time the P.I. hits a dead end, which is most of the time.
But for Carmichael and Lennox there's none of Nick and Nora Charles' boozy banter, Holmes and Watson's shape-shifting forensic sleuthing or Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin's home-bound theorizing. Carmichael and Lennox's shtick is using advanced mathematical principles to solve a series of seemingly intractable mysteries involving embezzlement, robbery and murder as well as some lesser, only-in-L.A. sorts of crimes and mysteries.
Rather than taking readers on a long and arduous trek full of false leads, wrong turns, red herrings and eureka moments to solve a single mystery, Stein has written 14 short stories that are complete unto themselves, each with its own false leads, wrong turns, red herrings and eureka moments. Although the mysteries stand alone, they all serve to advance the overall story of Freddy and Pete.
Mathematically inclined readers will love watching Stein set up the mysteries, coming up with their own answers and comparing them to the conclusions drawn by Pete and Freddy, who has the standard deductive powers of a private investigator but lacks the math skills to follow them to their logical — in hindsight — conclusions. But readers who stink at math can still enjoy; it's like taking vitamins disguised as gummy bears.
Stein, who still teaches an occasional math course at Long Beach State and El Camino College, has high hopes for his first voyage into crime fiction after writing a bunch of math trade books. “I've taught math to many liberal arts students, and I've noticed that even the good students who would remember at first what I taught them had forgotten most of it a year later. So the idea was to make it more memorable for them,” he says. “I'm hoping that people who teach math at the high school and college level will see the value of this book and will recommend it to their students.”
From Beverly Hills to Brentwood, from Malibu to Santa Barbara, Stein uses mathematical logic to uncover who is selling corporate secrets to a competitor, conditional probability to catch a cheating bookie and the rules of compound interest versus annual interest to figure out who killed a wealthy widow. But no matter how deep he takes us into the advanced principles of math, in the end it all adds up to a great read.