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Book Review: The Oxford Murders

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In the award-winning The Oxford Murders, Guillermo Martinez mixes mathematics and murder in a clever college caper. A young Argentine math student at Oxford returns home one summer’s day to find Arthur Seldom, one of his professors, standing outside his door. He invites the professor inside, only to stumble upon his landlady’s corpse in the midst of the living room. It turns out that the professor had received a mysterious note speaking of a murder and describing it as the “first of the series.” And sure enough, the landlady – an elderly woman who had helped to crack the German Enigma Code during World War II – had been murdered, smothered to death by an unknown assailant.

All of a sudden, the sedate, tranquil surroundings of Oxford’s intellectual confines are clouded by suspicion and concern. An old man on life support is found dead with needle punctures in his throat. The percussionist of an orchestra dies in the midst of a performance, right before the audience’s very eyes. All of the crimes seem absolutely random . . . save for the fact that anonymous notes directed to Arthur Seldom keep appearing in the math department. Each cryptic message seems to hint at some larger puzzle, and the teacher and the student race to decipher the problem.

The mystery is whether the crimes are simply innocent coincidences or the work of a murderer striving to match wits with a master logician. In that context, Martinez keeps the reader guessing for much of the novel before slowly unmasking the villains. Himself a Ph.D. in math, Martinez manages to convincingly sprinkle his narrative with brief references to such esoteric mathematical conceits as Godel’s theorem, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Wittgenstein’s paradox (the latter of which involves the notion of “the impossibility of establishing an unambiguous rule”). While little of the characters’ mathematic prowess proves instrumental in solving the mystery, it provides both a depth of realism and an thematic illustration in terms of trying to identify truth from illusion.

While Martinez’ writing style is somewhat dry and at times a touch on the “intellectual” side, overall the novel works as an engaging foray into a world where even complex theoretical structures may not prevent the most human of consequences. He lovingly develops his story as if he were constructing a complex math equation; while there are those who might assume that such a construct would seem formulaic and stilted, the reality is quite the contrary. The novel’s atmosphere and meaning create a potent combination. Recommended.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

Wallo World

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About Bill Wallo

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com Pat Cummings

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.