Math Problem

Dorothy Cannell: I have always thought of myself as having less than mediocre intelligence. At school I was weak on geography, biology and French and was horrible at math (or maths as we called it in England) from long division and multiplication on.  Attending a girl’s only school I wasn’t caught in the trap of believing it was a subject where females could not be expected to excel.  I had classmates who went Oxford and Cambridge to study it.  To my mind this was brainy in the extreme, even as I thought it a fate worse than death. By the way, I don’t know what is meant by pure math.  Is there impure math?

There was I lost in a sea of confusion, which around the time of fractions sank me into falling-151850_640indifference.  When it came to Geometry I had zero interest in the angle of the hypothesis or whatever it was.  As to Algebra I couldn’t imagine why anyone would care if A + B – C – D equaled any letter of the alphabet.  As for trigonometry, when posed with the question – if a man was falling off a cliff at a certain angle and speed where would he land – all I could think was if he’s falling to likely death why would he care?

Fortunately by the age of nine I had decided I was going to be an author when I grew up, so I was able view my inferiority, though shameful, as not impairing my ability to earn a living.  This view would have been less rosy had I known I would be forty before I sold a book; but my life wasn’t blighted by having to add up and subtract by use of my fingers, and pencil and scratch paper covered with a great deal of crossing out.  All I needed were cups of coffee to stimulate my brain.  My husband Julian and I often say we married because of our shared love (nutty passion) for books.  But a side attraction was his taking his undergraduate degree in accountancy.

He has always handled the business side of things, becoming quite rapturous at tax season.  All those exciting forms!  Those lovely columns of figures!  Needless to say I have never had to balance a checkbook.  All that is required of me is that I note and date any checks I write. I even receive praise for doing so, and I float off in a glow of self-congratulation that I can vaguely assess where that leaves our balance.  It didn’t take deep thinking to realize why I have no ability or interest in math.  It has nothing to do with people, at least not in a way that presents as visible, and it has always been people that has called to me most strongly.  To my mind people make the stories of life, from the tragic to the joyous to the mundane. And I particularly love the mundane, because it is the core, the setting for all the bigger stuff – birth, death and the search to make sense of the sometimes overwhelming.

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Considering my view of math it is perhaps surprising that I chose to write mysteries because they have the requirement that ‘things must add up.’  The pieces plucked from the mundane and traumatic must fit.  There can be no fudging on the answer to such questions as: if A talked to B about D in the presence of C was D lying when he said he didn’t know A or B?  This may fuddle my brain but I want to know the answer.  Were A and B endeavoring to rouse C’s suspicions of D, by having C overhear a conversation that destroys D’s Alibi?  Or was what they said truthful?

Back to trigonometry and the poor guy falling off the cliff—the angle and speed at which he falls becomes of acute interest to me if he becomes a seemingly harmless Mr. or Miss Jones who had been given a sharp push as he or she stood on the edge admiring the sun’s reflection on the sea below.  If the fall is slow and straight there maybe the chance to grab at a rocky protuberance and survive, but if it is far flung and fast the outcome is likely to be death. This brings about the pleasant part of deciding whether Mr. or Miss Jones gets to stay on for the rest of the book. This requires a think not only over a cup of coffee or tea but a slice or cake or at least four biscuits (cookies).

Final reflection.  Years ago I was on the last chapter of a book and someone asked me


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how much more I had to go.  “Nine pages,” I said.  “How do you know?” he asked.  “Have you already roughed it out?”  “Oh, no!” I replied, “I’ve worked out in my head what’s left to say, added it up and it’s nine pages.  I suppose it could be eight, but I don’t think so.  I’m not usually wrong about this.”  He stared at me in blank admiration.  “That’s clever!” he said.

It was a confidence booster.  But it didn’t make up for not ever knowing what happens to the remainders in long division.  To make excuses if I believe that if it has been a case of 13 teachers taking 147 children on a field trip, with each teacher being responsible for an equal number of children, I would have been deeply concerned for the remainders.  How would they fare for themselves?  Would they be glad to be unsupervised or panicked? And what if the answer were something like 7 and ¾ children?   I think I’d rather plot a murder.

Happy reading,


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