In January, I wrote about four mysteries that moved with varying degrees of slowness. I confessed that I was yearning for a fast mover, a compelling narrative that would keep me glued to the page (yes, the page, not the screen; I’m still wedded to the old fashioned, time honored way of reading). I’ve just read two novels that did the trick and then some.
The first was All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen. On the eve of a speech he’s to deliver before the World Trade Organization in Amsterdam, James Fenster, a brilliant mathematician, is assassinated. The killing is carried out in his hotel by means of a cunningly engineered explosion. The lead investigator in the case is an Interpol agent of French nationality named Henri Poincaré. That name has special significance: Poincaré is the great grandson of Jules Poincaré, described in Wikipedia as follows:
Jules Henri Poincaré (29 April 1854 – 17 July 1912)… was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and a philosopher of science. He is often described as a polymath, and in mathematics as The Last Universalist, since he excelled in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime.
As a mathematician and physicist, he made many original fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, mathematical physics, and celestial mechanics. He was responsible for formulating the Poincaré conjecture, one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics, until it was solved in 2002–3. In his research on the three-body problem, Poincaré became the first person to discover a chaotic deterministic system which laid the foundations of modern chaos theory. He is also considered to be one of the founders of the field of topology.
Unlike his distinguished ancestor, Henri Poincaré is not a mathematician. But the case he is embarked upon is intimately connected with chaos theory. James Fenster had taught at Harvard, so Poincaré’s inquiry naturally takes him to Cambridge. While there, he uncovers some strange and deeply intriguing facts about Fenster’s life and work. And as regards this novel’s plot, I think I’d better stop right there.
The Kirkus Review of All Cry Chaos describes it as a “hugely ambitious debut thriller.” There were moments when I wondered if it weren’t too ambitious. The overlay of the end-of-days scenario struck me as an unwelcome distraction from the business at hand, which was sufficiently harrowing (not to mention fiendishly complex) in and of itself. Yet it does appear that Leonard Rosen wanted to imbue this novel with a degree of gravitas. In that aim I believe he succeeded.
Here, Henri Poincaré recalls the occasion, many years ago, of the baptism of his son Etienne. Henri himself is not religious, but his wife Claire is; it was at her insistence that the ceremony was performed. Henri’s own reaction to it was completely unanticipated:
She had insisted that Etienne be baptized, and he agreed though he thought the ceremony little more than voodoo. How surprised he was, then, at the emotions rising in him when the priest offered a blessing and sprinkled holy water on the forehead of his son. That some could consider water holy, that Etienne, who was holy in Henri’s sight, would be blessed by another in the name of mysteries larger that them all; that sacrament could take place in a cathedral built when oxcarts plied the muddy streets of Lyon; that his wife and her family, without embarrassment, could welcome Etienne into a fellowship two thousand years old; that he, Poincaré, a rank non-believer, could be moved so nearly to tears at the ceremony that he forced himself to turn away, sharply, in search of control–all this stood as evidence to a single fact: that Henri Poincaré was a man who longed to believe, a man who was moved by mystery and beauty but a man for whom belief was impossible.
Leonard Rosen is a graduate of Me’ah, a special program of study offered by Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. His comments on the experience are in his alumni profile, the third of six profiles on this page.
All Cry Chaos has been nominated for the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Awards in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author. It’s a well deserved honor, in my opinion.
The Fear Index by Robert Harris is the second of the two thrillers alluded to above. A post on that novel is forthcoming.