Denis Guedj, , trans. from the French by Frank Wynne. . St. Martin's/Dunne, $24.95 (344pp) ISBN 978-0-312-28055-0

Murder mystery meets mathematical history in this pleasantly whimsical but unfocused debut novel, which begins when a Parisian bookseller named Pierre Ruche receives a priceless collection of historical math books from a wartime colleague named Elgar Grosrouvre. Grosrouvre's mathematical treasure is augmented when a precocious, math-savvy parrot is rescued by a young deaf boy named Max Liard after he discovers two men trying to capture and muzzle the bird. Max, who was adopted, lives with Ruche along with his rather flaky mother, Perette, and his older twin brother and sister, who are called Jon-and-Lea. The arrival of the library sends Ruche into a tizzy of mathematical research until he realizes that his friend's desire to bequeath the collection may have stemmed in part from threats to his life. The parrot plays a vital role in the unraveling of the mystery when Ruche discovers that the talking bird has become the verbal repository for Grosrouvre's groundbreaking work on an important mathematical theorem. What follows is an extended attempt to follow his elusive trail. While the concept is brilliant and innovative, this novel is much more a brief history of mathematics than a murder mystery, and despite the author's expertise and tireless enthusiasm for his subject, the math-oriented material often wanders afar. Guedj, a Paris mathematics professor and author of Numbers: The Universal Language, has a definite talent for storytelling, but his charming novel, albeit a bestseller in France, lacks proper balance between mystery and history. (Sept. 1)

Forecast:By presenting such challenging subject matter in scattered fashion, Guedj reduces the novel's accessibility and thus the size and scope of his potential U.S. audience. The book was a bestseller in France, but will face more difficulties here.