Guillermo Martínez

"The Oxford Murders"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann DEC 12, 2005)

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez

This quiet murder mystery opens as the unnamed narrator from Argentina writes,
"Now that the years have passed and everything's been forgotten, and now that I've received a terse e-mail from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom's death, I feel I can break my silence . . ."  In this contemplative, almost wistful tone, author Martínez develops his story of the mathematical, the magical, and the morbid.   We are thrust back in time to when the narrator, as a new student at Oxford, takes a room in the basement of an elderly woman's house. Before long, he and a famous mathematics don, Arthur Seldom, discover the landlady's lifeless body sprawled on the sofa. A small mistake by the murderer––too much force when suffocating the victim––betrays  what would have seemed like a natural death definite homicide. When Seldom reveals that he received a mysterious note in his cubby that led him to the house and that suggests this is only the first of many murders, the detective work begins, with the narrator and Seldom hashing out ideas about symbols, patterns, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, the Pythagorean Society, Wittgenstein, and, of course, the solution of the "impossible," Fermat's Last Theorem. The introduction of a magician and his one-handed tricks connects the discussions of math with the truth.

Set in England around the time that Andrew Wiles revealed his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, Martínez's novel focuses not as much on the crimes as on the intellectual partnership between Seldom and the narrator, and on the state of their profession.   The two discuss the mathematical implications of the murders––which seem to be the work of a serial killer out to impress the renowned Seldom––as they move about Oxford.  Those who are familiar with Oxford will delight in the setting; the characters meet at the Eagle and Child (a nod to famous Oxford literary figures and minds), several different colleges, the Sheldonian Theatre, and other landmarks.       

The Oxford Murder is not the kind of mystery that quickens the heart, but instead becomes more like a friend as it settles into its  even rhythms.  The novel owes more to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes  stories than it does to The Silence of the Lambs, although Seldom is not as complex as Holmes, nor is the narrator as likable as Watson.  The failure to believably develop the characters is one of the novel's biggest flaws.  When Seldom introduces the idea of smoke-and-mirrors magic, he stays  in character, but the novel takes an unbelievable turn late in the book as he brings up the possibility of murder-by-telepathy.   It  doesn't fit with what little the reader knows about him.  Likewise, the narrator's relationship with Lorna is believable but incomplete, as though Martínez expected Lorna to play a larger role in the story, then gave up.  Although the lack of complexity makes it difficult to care about what happens to the characters, Martínez's flowing style and Soto's translation keep everything flowing. 

While the ending is somewhat of a let-down, the book itself is entertaining, with its gentle insertion of the philosophy inherent in mathematics lending texture.  Its old fashioned tone tempts one to sit by the fireplace on a chilly night and read late into the night.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 38 reviews


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About the Author:

Guillermo MartínezGuillermo Martínez was born in 1962 in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. He moved to Buenos Aires in 1985, earning a Phd. degree in mathmatical science. He has made a dual career in mathematics and literature--disciplines that stimulate his creativity in mutually inspiring ways.

Martínez has won numerous prizes including the Planeta Prize, a highly prestigious award in the Spanish-speaking world. He has also written anthologies and stories. His work has been translated into 25 languages, and his storiea have also been adapted as movies in in his native South America.

In 2000 and 2001 he received scholarships from the MacDowell colony and in 2002 he participated in the international program of writers of the University of Iowa.

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