Click here to read reviewer Mervi Hamalainen's take on The Oxford Murders.
As a professor of Mathematics in Buenos Aires with a post-doctoral from Oxford University, Guillermo Martinez is ideally situated to write a murder mystery involving mathematical puzzles and an Argentine mathematics student at Oxford. His experience allows him to relocate the reader to Oxford to vividly experience the developing events of The Oxford Murders.
The story in first person is fast-paced and suspenseful, while avoiding the formulaic thrill pitfalls of mystery writers. At the same time, Martinez skillfully draws the reader into the story to play the erudite detective along with his protagonists: a twenty-two-year-old Argentine post-doctoral student at Oxford's Mathematical Institute, his brilliant and eccentric mentor Arthur Seldom, and the meticulous and determined detective Inspector Petersen.
The student's landlady is smothered in her home. An old man on life-support is found dead with needle punctures on his throat. A percussionist with the symphony dies on stage during a concert. And after every death, notes with mathematical symbols show up for Seldom at the Institute.
At the bottom of the mystery is whether these murders are related, whether they were committed by one person or multiple people, and whether there were any accomplices. What do the symbols mean? And what is the motive behind the crimes, or is there even a motive?
As the clues in the story unfurl, the reader is led hither and yon believing all possible combinations of the three possibilities. Just when the reader thinks, the story is clearly headed in a particular direction, Martinez throws in a monkey wrench in the works and nudges it in a radical direction.
By writing in first person, Martinez gives the post-doc student license to confide in the reader the details, outcomes, emotions, hypotheses, and relationships of his life and the events of the unfolding tale. This book isn't populated with stick figures run around trying to get themselves out of the sticky situations their authors have stuck them into. Relationships--complicated, simple, secretive, and formal--between the various characters form the basis of the serial murders in the story.
So then, what is the truth? In Seldom's own words: "There's a difference between the truth and the part of the truth that can be proved." Petersen, of course, would prefer the former, but as any experienced detective knows, you have to settle for what you can reliably string together in court. And so the reader and protagonists compromise their ideals in order to achieve an end, but are left with a niggling sense of unfinished business: Was the true perpetrator of the crimes caught? And so the reader remains linked to the author even after the book is done.
The only quibble I have with this book is the lack of a name for the student. A name is central to the identity of a person. It allows the reader to imprint on the protagonist better than any event, emotion, or action--in fact the name acts as a link, an index if you will, to all the various pieces of a human puzzle.
But that bump aside, The Oxford Murders is an engrossing and informative read, with real people embroiled in an intricate whodunit plot involving multiple gruesome murders that can only be solved by finding answers to symbolic mathematical puzzles.