Uncommon Mystery - The Oxford Murders

Aug 20, 2010

Murray, KY – Now that the students have returned to Murray State and classes are in full swing, we take off our summer shades and don our thinking caps. Commentator Michael Cohen peeks through the pages of the mathematical mystery, The Oxford Murders, by Argentinean novelist and professor of mathematical logic, Guillermo Martinez.

The Oxford Murders was published in 2005 but looks back to events that happened in Oxford in the early nineties, when the unnamed narrator arrived from Buenos Aires to work on a graduate degree in mathematics. His graduate supervisor has recommended he lodge with the widow of her former professor. His landlady turns out to have been one of the cryptologists who helped Alan Turing crack the Germans' Enigma Code. On the first night after his arrival, she greets him warmly, feeds him dinner, and trounces him at Scrabble. A few days later she is murdered, the main clue being a message that her friend, the famous mathematician Arthur Seldom, says he received, summoning him to her house, including a mathematical symbol, and stating that this would be the first of a series.

The landlady's granddaughter Beth, who plays in an Oxford orchestra, has admitted that she feels trapped in her role of caretaker for her grandmother. The narrator's tennis partner and lover, Lorna, who has a great interest in crime literature, is reading Arthur Seldom's book on mathematical series, which contains a chapter on serial killers, and her copy is filled with "furious underlinings and illegible comments in the margins." Thus Mart nez begins to build the list of suspects, which includes a Russian graduate student in math who is convinced his genius has been ignored by Arthur Seldom.

Seldom tells the police inspector that the murderer must have found his book insulting and is trying to prove something to the mathematician. Seldom had argued that serial killers are crazy rather than logical. He suggests to the police that finding and announcing the next term in the series publicly might stop the murders. A second death has already occurred at this point.

A third death occurs at a concert by Beth's orchestra at Blenheim Palace; the dead man is the triangle player. Seldom is about to announce the fourth term of the series, which is merely the simple numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and their Pythagorean symbols, when the climactic event of the book happens, a killing in which the perpetrator dies. The police inspector is convinced he's solved the Oxford Murders, but the truth is more complicated and more surprising.

The narrator's foreignness gives a nice perspective to the English scene: the light that seems to be dimmed as soon as his plane dips into the sky over England, the incomprehensible cricket games where it is impossible for the uninitiated to even tell whether the game has begun or the players are merely desultorily warming up, the beauty of Oxford and the surrounding countryside, the ubiquitous Indians and Pakistanis. All this is delivered in Mart nez's very clear style in what appears to be an excellent translation by Sonia Soto. The movie made from the book was not a success, probably because the story turned into a purely English mystery, with the Argentinean narrator made into an English math student.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez was first published by in 2003 and translated in 2005 by Sonia Soto. Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University.

See more book reviews and recommendations on our Good Reads page, here.