Book Reviews · Crime

The Tree of Knowledge by Daniel G. Miller

It is said that the greatest chess grandmasters envision a match’s outcome ten moves before it occurs. Imagine a person who could visualise ten steps ahead not only in the game of chess but in every human interaction. Imagine a person who could see a punch before it was thrown, who could anticipate what you say before you said it. Imagine a person who could see the chess game of politics, economics, and power itself unfold long before it happens. Imagine a secret that could make all of this possible. Mathematics professor Albert Puddles is such a person, and as he is thrust into a murder and burglary investigation on the Princeton campus he finds that there is such a secret. The discovery leads Albert to team up with an aging mentor, a curious graduate assistant, and an unusual “book club” on a frantic chase across the country to recover the book’s secret and clear his name.

Thank you to NetGalley and Houndstooth Books for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Right off the bat, I have to say that this book was a struggle for me. I was very excited to read it, because from the description I envisioned a tense, intelligent mystery unravelling in the high society of the elite Princeton campus, with conspiracy and danger lurking in the seemingly perfect setting. I expected a competent, Sherlockian man, leaping at the prospect of a puzzle to solve. Sadly, that is not the book I read.

My hopes stemmed from the blurb I have copied above, and even as I read the quote from Paradise Lost that appears before the first chapter, I was excited for a deep and possibly generation-spanning mystery to unfold before me. The first chapter begins from the point of view of a security guard working at the Bank of Princeton, where a thief breaks in to steal something of value, killing the guard in the process. This, I thought, was still in the realm of what I expected, as a lot of mystery books will open with the crime, before jumping into the detective’s point of view. And indeed, chapter two begins thus: “Professor Albert Puddles was sweating.” I quite like his introduction as an intelligent and proud, yet not very impressive, man. I like the way his logical nature wars with his human emotions, even in a simple scenario such as the first day of teaching for the school year, which is where we first meet him.

‘Emotion implied the absence of logic, and logic was Albert’s one and only religion. Logic provided a cool, comforting refuge against the hot, emotional chaos of the world. Logic was precise. It made sense. It didn’t change from one day to the next. It was everything life should be and so rarely was.’

When his lecture is interrupted by the arrival of a policeman wanting his help with a case, I was excited to get my first taste of puzzle solving, as the intruder from chapter one left a coded game tree at the scene of the crime. However, when it comes to solving it, Professor Puddles and his assistant Ying Koh have a very basic conversation about codes, and the chapter includes quite an extensive history of ciphers that I felt threw off the pace of the story.

The most disappointing thing, however, was the fact that the points of view switch continuously between characters, including some of the antagonists. In a story such as this one, which holds a mystery and conspiracy, I would expect to be limited to one or two points of view, generally those of the main character and maybe their sidekick or mentor, and the reader would then have to unravel the mystery alongside the characters. What happens in Miller’s novel, though, is that the reader holds all the information from both sides, so that there is no surprise for them as things unfold. I do enjoy a bit of dramatic irony, but it loses its efficacy when it is used continuously. I know people have compared it to a Dan Brown novel, but from my memory of Brown’s writing, at least there are some great twists in his books, if nothing else.

The whole thing had the feel of an action movie, and I do think it would work very well on screen – the characters might stand up a bit more, and some of the interactions wouldn’t feel as forced. To its credit, it did handle its action well, and did a few interesting things with political commentary, but unfortunately it just wasn’t the book for me – I know part of this is due to the expectation I had, but I also feel that my expectations were justified from the way the book has been marketed. The ending was also strange, and I sense it might be setting itself up for a sequel, but I can’t say I’m invested enough to want to read any more of this story. I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, and I have tried to see the positives in this book, but reading it wasn’t an enjoyable experience for me, unfortunately. I’m sure, though, that there are many people who will read it, enjoy it, and look forward to more.

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