Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Oxford Murders

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez
translated from the Spanish by Sonia Soto

This very mathematical mystery is Argentine author Guillermo Martínez's third novel (after Regarding Roderer and The Woman of the Master, which has not yet been translated into English).

The story begins in 1993 with the narrator recalling events the recents surrounding a series of murders that took place in Oxfordshire many years earlier. At the time of the murders, he was a post-graduate fellow at the Mathematics Institute at Oxford.

After the first murder (that of the narrator's landlady), the killer leaves a cryptic note in the mailbox of Arthur Seldom, a prominent mathematician who included a chapter on serial killers in his latest book. The killer seems to be poking fun at Seldom and, at the same time, issuing a challenge.

Each murder is represented by a symbol and, added together, the symbols form a series. If the narrator, Seldom, and the police find the solution to the series, it seems, the murders will stop. Martínez, however, uses Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Wittgenstein's finite rule paradox to illustrate the uncertainty of mathematics and the impossibility of there being only one correct solution to the series.
"Do you really believe he'll stop if we find the solution?" asked Petersen [the detective] doubtfully.
But there was no such thing as the solutioon, I thought. That was the most exasperating things. [...] I wondered how he'd explain minds that took big leaps, Wittgenstein, rule-following paradoxes and the movements of normal bell-curves to Petersen. But Seldom needed only on sentence:
"He'll stop," he said slowly, "if it's the solution that he has in mind." (86-87)
The fact that Martínez is also a professor of mathematics at the Universidad de Buenos Aires can explain the appearance of higher mathematics in The Oxford Murders. Mathematical theory, however, is just one aspect of the novel. The plot is well-constructed and the narrator is a believable character who has many interesting insights as an outsider to British society.

While some readers may lose patience with all the mathematical jargon contained in the dialogue, The Oxford Murders is definitely worth a read. The book is brimming with potential killers (from the narrator's new girlfriend with her interest in crime, to another Mathematics Institute fellow who closely matches the psychological profile of the killer) and has enough twists and turns toward the end for readers to feel satisfied when they reach the final page.

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