The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez

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The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An excellent plot but weak characterisation and some howling mistakes mean that this might be a book to borrow from the library rather than buy. Once you know the name of the murderer, you know the name of the murderer!
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 197 Date: January 2006
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 0349117233

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A young graduate student arrives from Argentina to study mathematics in Oxford and he's barely got to know his landlady before he arrives home one day to find that she's been murdered. As he discovers the body he meets Arthur Seldom, Professor of Logic at the University. Seldom has been brought to the house by a note bearing a mathematical symbol and the words "the first of the series". His most famous work of philosophy includes a chapter on serial killers and it seems that this killer is taunting him. It's only a matter of days before there's another death.

It's a good book and it's a bad book. Let's get the bad bits out of the way first so that we can enjoy the good bits.

Characterisation is thin, at best. Well, it's only a slim book, you see. There are 197 pages of text and much of it is concerned with mathematical rules and axioms. That might sound rather dry and dull, but it's not - it's surprisingly entertaining - but it doesn't leave a lot of room for more than most cursory of character-building. The young student narrates the story, but doesn't even manage to collect a name. Amazingly he arrives from Argentina complete with perfect, idiomatic English and never falters in his understanding of what is said to him. It may be that this is a failing in the otherwise excellent translation by Sonia Soto but it did detract from the book.

The most fully-formed character is that of Arthur Seldom, but he's still rather superficial. We're told the big facts about him - the life events - but there's little of the minutiae which adds depth to a character. I was maddened by the women in the story as they're sex objects and little more. From the point of view of the book I'd regard them as an opportunity wasted.

The book is set in Oxford with an outing to Blenheim, but I'd no reason to think that the author had been anywhere near either. There was no more feeling of place than if a few facts had been culled from a couple of guide books. The settings seemed far too sterile, too lacking in history.

There are factual inaccuracies and to a British reader they scream out loud. Pakistani taxi drivers do not work in their shirt sleeves in cold weather, in fact quite the reverse in my experience and most people do not leave their curtains open after dark. They're silly mistakes and unnecessary as they added nothing to the plot but took away from its veracity. More serious was the point at which two policemen drew guns and prepared to fire them. One of them wasn't even on duty! In the UK policemen do not carry concealed weapons.

Right, that's the complaints out of the way! The plot is excellent if a little over-dependant on coincidence at times, with a good build-up of dramatic tension. I thought (twice) that I'd worked out the identity of the murderer, but hadn't anticipated the eventual outcome. It's neatly, cleverly done and all the clues were there throughout the book. There were plenty of good red herrings too.

I did wonder if I would enjoy this book as my knowledge of mathematics is limited and not very technical. The murders happen at the same time as Andrew Wiles so famously solved Fermat's Last Theorem, claimed in the book to be the most important event in mathematics in three hundred years. The background of rivalries and shenanigans is fascinating and the interweaving of factual happenings with fictional murders is skilfully done. Guillermo Martínez holds a doctorate in Mathematical Science and he's combined a depth of knowledge with excellent communication skills to great effect.

I loved the application of theories of logic to the investigation of the murders. I've never done well in those "what comes next in this sequence" questions as I've always been able to see more than one answer and that's the basic premise of this book. Logical sequences have always had an essential waywardness for me. The only answer is that there are more answers than you can imagine. This is detection as an abstract logical puzzle and I was fascinated by it.

I'm never going to understand Pythagoras, Wittgenstein, Gödel or Fermat and I suspect that if you do then you might get more out of the book than I did, but, despite all its faults it was a cracking good read which I got through in one sitting. There are some complex mathematical and logical points involved so it might seem something of a contradiction to describe the book as easy reading and I can only attribute this to the skill of the writer and translator.

If this is the type of book that you enjoy then you might like to try Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan, translated from the original Russian.

Buy The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez at Amazon.com.

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