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Two books, two whines

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers was worth reading, but I felt used. Paul Erdos was a completely fascinating eccentric who proved that not all mathematical geniuses do their important work by the time they’re 30. I won’t go through his bundle of oddities because the author, Paul Hoffman, does a good job enumerating them through anecdotes. But don’t expect a biography: Hoffman doesn’t get much past anecdotes.

That’s not, however, why I felt used. First, the title is a lie. Hoffman makes it clear that Erdos loved his mother, loved little kids, and loved — in his own weird way — his friends, many of whom he kept for his lifetime. Second, this started out as a magazine article and it reads that way. It jumps around in the history of mathematics in order to pad out the book. Some of those jumps are interesting, but as a reader, I felt disrespected, as if Hoffman thought I wouldn’t notice that he’d changed the topic without even the courtesy of a transition sentence.

When in London I picked up a paperback of Blowfly, the not-quite-the-latest in the Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. I’d pretty much given up on the series, but the book was on sale so I figured I’d give it one more shot. I’m about half way through it and that’s probably as far as I’m going to get.

The series started out well — a smart, feisty, female forensic pathologist who solved crimes the CSI way except without the techno beat. (The series undoubtedly was an inspiration, if that’s the word, for the CSI sausage factory.) But as it’s progressed, Scarpetta has gone from interesting to perfect. The people around her tell us that she is gorgeous, flawless, a genius, perfectly moral, the most caring person they’ve ever met. This would just be bad writing except I get the creepy feeling that Cornwall identifies completely with Scarpetta.

That’s in addition to a standard problem writers of crime stories now face: The Temptation of the Lambs. In the first half of Blowfly, Cornwall spends more time with her pair of serial killers than with Scarpetta. She apparently believes she is a fine observer of character. But, her serial killers are impossibly monstrous and monstrously over-written. It’s embarrassingly melodramatic and creepy in all the wrong ways.

O, Thomas Harris, what hast thou wrought?

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