Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mystery Book Review: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez

Mysterious ReviewsMysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, has written our review of The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

Penguin Books (Trade Paperback)
ISBN-10: 0-14-303796-X (014303796X)
ISBN-13: 978-0-14-303796-5 (9780143037965)
Publication Date: September 2006
List Price: $13.00

Synopsis (from the publisher): On a summer’s day in Oxford, a young Argentine mathematics student finds his landlady – an elderly woman who helped decipher the Enigma Code during World War II – murdered in her house. Meanwhile, leading Oxford mathematician Arthur Seldom receives an anonymous note bearing a circle and the words, “the first of the series,” and a mystery is born.

Murders begin to pile up – an old man on life-support is found dead with needle punctures in his throat; a percussionist at Blenheim Palace dies before the audience’s very eyes – seemingly unconnected except for notes appearing in the math department, for the attention of Seldom.

Seldom guesses that the murders might relate to his latest book, an unexpected best-seller about the parallels between investigations of serial killers and certain mathematical theorems. As he and the young student are drawn further into the game, it is up to mentor and student to solve the puzzle before the killer strikes again.

Review: "I feel I can break my silence and tell the truth about events that reached the British papers in the summer of '93 with macabre and sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred—perhaps due to the mathematical connotation—simply as the series, or the Oxford Series." So begins The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martínez, an intellectual mystery that is reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in both character and style.

Arthur Seldom is a mathematician of some renown at Oxford University. A new student at the University, the narrator of the book whose unpronounceable name is never revealed, initially meets Seldom one day as he is visiting his landlady. When there is no answer at the door, they enter and find her dead under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Seldom later reveals that the reason for his visit was that he received a note with her address, the time of day, a circle, and the words, "The first of a series." Seldom, who has written on the subject of series and serial killers, believes that this may be the work of someone trying to challenge him, and that more murders may occur. When they do, he enlists the aid of the student to find the killer.

There are several compelling facets to The Oxford Murders. The mathematical discussions, and the historical comparisons between mathematics and magic, are fascinating and are likely to intrigue readers who may not think they have an interest in either. The murders, and their symbolic links, are also deceptively appealing. Consider, for example, this statement by Seldom on the possibility that death may have resulted from natural causes: "A natural death, of course, the logical extreme, the most perfect example of an imperceptible murder."

But there are problems as well. Character development is minimal with the emphasis placed primarily on the plot. There is an implication at the start of the book that the narrator and Seldom shared a long and endearing friendship over the years, but little of how this relationship may have developed is revealed in this story aside from the shared experience of the Oxford murders. Finally, and probably most problematic, the resolution to the mystery is contrived and depends far too much on coincidence to be totally credible. Or does it? One interpretation may be that Martínez wrote the book as a demonstration of Occam's razor, which states that when presented with two equally legitimate explanations for an event, the simpler, less complicated one is likely to be the most valid. This reasoning, while consistent with the book's premise, may be too subtle and intricate to be convincing and may, in fact, violate the very principle it's meant to illustrate.

Special thanks to FSB Associates for providing a copy of The Oxford Murders for this review. A hardcover edition of this book was published in October 2005 by Madadam Cage Publishing (1596921501).

Review Copyright © 2007 Hidden Staircase Mystery Books

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