In the following email interview, writer Jonathan Pinnock discusses his new novel The Truth About Archie And Pye (paperback, Kindle), a mathematical mystery he says does not require an advanced degree in mathematics to enjoy.
To start, what is The Truth About Archie And Pye about?
After a disastrous day at work, disillusioned junior PR executive Tom Winscombe finds himself sharing a train carriage and a dodgy Merlot with George Burgess, biographer of the Vavasor twins, mathematicians Archimedes and Pythagoras, who both died in curious circumstances a decade ago.
Burgess himself will die tonight in an equally odd manner, leaving Tom with a locked case and a lot of unanswered questions.
The Truth About Archie And Pye is the story of how Tom goes about finding the answers to those questions while still somehow remaining alive as the deaths mount up around him.
There’s a wide-ranging cast of characters, including internet conspiracy nuts, a hedge fund manager, the Belarusian mafia, and a cat called µ.
Where did you get the idea for The Truth About Archie And Pye, and how did it evolve as you wrote it, if at all?
Archie and Pye made their first appearance in a short story I wrote back in 2008, called “Mathematical Puzzles And Diversions,”a reference to the book by the great Martin Gardner. This was selected to be performed at the spoken word event Liars’ League in London and was subsequently published in my first short story collection, Dot Dash. They then went into hibernation until 2014, when I was casting around for something to write for my MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and, to cut a very long story short, they suddenly seemed the most obvious thing to write a novel about.
My original protagonist was much older and savvy about mathematics, but I made a decision early on to make him younger and largely ignorant, in order to (a) distance him from myself and (b) avoid talking down to readers who may, quite understandably, find mathematics intimidating. It also gave me space to create another character who could, reluctantly, help him on his journey. The rest of the story evolved as I searched for reasons why certain things might have happened. That process introduced more characters who went off in unexpected directions, as characters tend to, so I followed them to see where they went, until eventually they led to the final conclusion of the story.
The Truth About Archie And Pye sounds like a mystery, but since it’s about math, I suppose we should call it a mathematical mystery. Is that how you see it?
Okay, there’s something we need to get out of the way before we go any further. It’s the “math” thing. As a Brit, I can just about cope with you guys referring to “humour” as “humor” — because it is, I guess, more economical on computer storage to use one less letter — but “math” is pretty much a red line for me. “Mathematics” looks like a plural word to me, so the logical abbreviation would seem to be “maths.” The word “math” can only be short for “mathematic,” which doesn’t really make any sense.
Anyway, having alienated a considerable part of my audience there, I’ll answer your question. I like to think of it in recipe terms. The primary ingredients are humor (see?) and mystery. The maths (sorry, not really sorry) part is more like a spice to give it a bit of a kick.
The math aspects ofThe Truth About Archie And Pye kind of remind me of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, albeit loosely, like the way Game Of Thrones is reminiscent of The Lord Of The Rings. Do you agree with this assessment?
I would totally read a version of Flatland which had more sex, more violence, and more bad language in it. Sounds an awesome concept. However, The Truth About Archie And Pye is not that book. Also, if I were being truly honest, I never really got on with Flatland, having previously read A.K. Dewdney’s far more interesting The Planiverse, set in a world with one vertical and one horizontal axis, rather than Flatland‘s two horizontal ones.
So do you think math teachers and mathematical theoreticians would enjoy The Truth About Archie And Pye?
Yes, they would, because they’d appreciate some of the jokes. Also, they’d understand the awe in which one of the characters holds Euler’s Identity. I think there should be more books where Euler’s Identity has a starring role. It’s the most amazing thing.
Speaking of which, do you have to be good at math to understand The Truth About Archie And Pye? I mean, I assume there are little things you wouldn’t get otherwise, like how Futurama always had fun math and science jokes, but is being able to understand advanced mathematical theories part of following the plot?
I think the Futurama comparison is a good one. I had to walk quite a fine line when writing The Truth About Archie And Pye because I wanted to put sufficient maths into it to make it fun for mathematicians to read, but not too much to put off non-mathematicians. Basically, there are occasional references to a couple of mathematical constants, e and π, and there are a couple of pages in the middle where a few equations pop up, but you can skip them without missing too much if they trigger memories of bad days at school.
So, did you have The Truth About Archie And Pye peer reviewed?
I had a couple of beta readers who were both more arts-oriented than maths-oriented, and neither of them seemed bothered about the amount of maths references. The level of maths involved isn’t too complex, so I didn’t feel I needed to have it checked out by a fellow mathematician. Having said that, I’m dreading the inevitable day when someone points out some egregious rookie error.
Now, The Truth About Archie And Pye is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think were a big influence on The Truth About Archie And Pye but not on your other stories?
Good question. I’ve been wondering about this ever since I started writing the book. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are probably lurking in there somewhere, along with P.G. Wodehouse. Andrey Kurkov’s Death And The Penguin was almost certainly in my mind when I introduced the Belarusian mafia into the mix, although there are no penguins in this one. I’m not completely ruling out any future appearances, though. Let’s face it: there are very few modern novels that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of a penguin or two.
How about non-literary influences on The Truth About Archie And Pye; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on this story or how you told it?
I think the biggest influence on the book was probably a TV series from the ’80s that almost certainly never made it across the Atlantic. It was a conspiracy thriller called Bird Of Prey and starred Richard Griffiths, who later found fame as Uncle Monty in Withnail And I and Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films. It was very hi-tech for its time and looks horribly dated now, but it was a lot of fun. I also think the black humor of films like In Bruges may have had some influence too, along with all the old British comedy series I grew up with.
The Truth About Archie And Pye is the first book in the Mathematical Mystery series. First off, why isn’t this series called the Mathematical Mystery Tour?
Because neither my publisher nor myself thought of it! Which is a damn shame, because it’s a really neat idea, especially because it implicitly equates maths with magic. When I’m looking for a name for my next series, I’ll definitely give you a call. You’re good.
Thanks. We discuss my consulting fee later. Anyway, what can you tell us about this series in terms of whether it’s going to be an ongoing thing or a set number of books like a trilogy?
My contract is for two books, so there’s definitely going to be at least one more. The second book, A Question Of Trust — which is currently set to be published next April — is basically a stand-alone story, but within the same overall arc. Some minor characters will have enhanced roles and some new ones will appear, some loose ends will be tied up and some new ones left dangling loose. What happens after that depends on a number of things, the most important of which is what the reading public make of the first two. I’ve got quite a rich cast of characters that I like playing around with, so I would be very happy to write several more, although I don’t have any specific plans for where the overall story arc is heading at the moment. It’ll emerge in due course if and when it wants to.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The Truth About Archie And Pye. But has there been any interest in adapting this series into a movie, show, or game?
Not yet, but it’s early days. I’d like to see it as a TV show. Maybe half a dozen episodes per book? I think that would work quite nicely. I’ve always imagined the book in visual terms when I’ve been writing it.
If The Truth About Archie And Pye was being adapted into a TV show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
I’d quite like to see a bunch of relative unknowns in the main roles, because I think whoever’s playing them should bring as little baggage as possible. And the characters are quite young anyway.
As far as the supporting cast is concerned, I’d love to see Tim McInnerny [Game Of Thrones] play a city financier character in it called Rufus Fairbanks. He’d absolutely kill it.
Finally, if someone’s enjoys The Truth About Archie And Pye, which of your other novels would you suggest they read and why that one?
I’ve actually only written one other novel, Mrs. Darcy Versus The Aliens, which is a sequel to Pride And Prejudice with added aliens. The humor of that one is a bit different in many ways — maybe more Monty Python, less Fawlty Towers — and also you really need to know the original to appreciate a lot of it. That said, there’s a lot of it that I’m still quite proud of, especially all the filthy double entendres involving Lord Byron.