” I found the parallels with Gödel’s theorem very striking. In every crime there is undoubtedly a notion of the truth, a single true explanation among all the explanations . . . What is a criminal investigation if not our own game of thinking up conjectures, possible explanations that fit the facts, and attempting to prove them correct? ” (Ch.7, p.53-4)
There have been many novels that fuse mathematics and murder mystery. Although The Oxford Murders is not the first thriller to adopt this device, it is (to me), one of the few that does it successfully. In The Oxford Murders, a young Argentine mathematician just arrives Oxford on a scholarship. On a summer day shortly after his arrival, he finds his landlady dead on the chaise, eyes wide open in terror and two parallel trails of blood running from her nose. But Mrs. Eagleton’s death, heralded by the purest of mathematical forms, is only the beginning of a sequence of murders. It seems that the serial killer can be stopped only if someone can crack the next symbol in the sequence. The narrator is joined by the leading Oxford logician Arthur Seldom on the quest to crack the cryptic clues.
He concluded that he would have to provide the police with another suspect, one who was obvious and immediate and who meant the case was closed. The perfect crime, he wrote, wasn’t one that remained unsolved, but one where the wrong person was blamed. (Ch.14, p.107)
The plot rattles along at an efficient pace. Sometimes it pauses to fill the reader with the theoretical background, but before long another murder would takes place. Although the series of murders seems to be linked by cryptic clues and symbols, the trouble is that even if the math graduate and the logician think they have got the next symbol, there’s always a paradox lurking in the background. Perhaps there is an alternative, more surprising twist to the sequence. In the end, the solution is unexpected yet perfectly logical and watertight. Martínez, a mathematics professor himself, impresses the reader the similarities between cracking a crime and proving a mathematical theorem. He manages to pull this off without overwhelming those who aren’t in the grasp of advanced mathematics. It is, after all, easy to labor connections between mathematics and murder, but there is a lightness of touch, aided by an elegance in prose, in the way Martínez lays out the themes in the book.
Perhaps the strangest thing is that Petersen didn’t even consider the possibility that it might have been a natural death. I realized that though he may have had doubts before, he was now quite convinced that he was pursuing a serial killer, so it seemed perfectly reasonable to find murders at every turn . . . (Ch.25, p.192-3)
The Oxford Murders does not have the most exciting characters—some of whom are in fact dull. The book does appeal reader’s mind and seduces one to solve an abstract logical puzzle. There are puzzles within puzzles, red herrings both obvious and obscure. The slow unmasking of the culprit reveals that however they are dressed with an intellectual allure, the motives behind the murders are so much simpler, intellectual speaking, but emotionally complex. The book evokes the age-old conflict between heart and mind. The irrational logic revealed in the denouement comes as a surprise but the underlying motive is all too familiar and human.
197 pp. Abacus/Hachette UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: Books, Contemporary Literature, Literature, Mystery, Thriller Tagged: | Books, General Fiction, Guillermo Martínez, Intellectual Mystery, Literature, The Oxford Murders, Thriller, translated literature