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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Oxford Murders

by
Guillermo Martínez


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Oxford Murders



Title: The Oxford Murders
Author: Guillermo Martínez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Oxford Murders - US
Crímenes imperceptibles - US
The Oxford Murders - UK
The Oxford Murders - Canada
Mathématique du crime - France
Die Pythagoras-Morde - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: Crímenes imperceptibles (but also published as: Los crímenes de Oxford )
  • Translated by Sonia Soto

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely related, with some decent twists

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 5/2/2005 Marcus du Sautoy
The Independent . 27/1/2006 Emma Hagestadt
London Rev. of Books . 20/1/2005 Thomas Jones
The LA Times . 23/10/2005 Nicholas A. Basbanes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/10/2005 Marilyn Stasio
San Francisco Chronicle . 2/10/2005 David Lazarus
The Times . 12/3/2005 Marcel Berlins
TLS . 20/8/2004 Martin Schifino
Die Zeit . 10/3/2005 Tobias Gohlis


  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most enjoyed it -- some thoroughly

  From the Reviews:
  • "The mix of mathematics and murder mystery makes for a powerful cocktail. The Oxford Murders is not the first thriller to combine the two, but it is one of the first to do it successfully.(...) What is more surprising is how sensitively he uses the ideas. It would be all too easy to labour the connections between maths and murder, but there is a lightness of touch in the way the themes are laid out in the book that make it a very easy read." - Marcus du Sautoy, The Guardian

  • "Read it, and be temporarily convinced that applied mathematics is suddenly within your grasp." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "The Oxford Murders is comfortably short enough to be read in a single evening, and the plot rattles along at an efficient pace (.....) The prose is straightforward but has some nice touches" - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "The general reader might be occasionally slowed by some of Seldom and other characters' weightier statements, but this will surely appeal to readers with a yen for science and mathematics. On the other hand, the tale Martínez offers in The Oxford Murders just might engage anyone who simply enjoys a cleverly structured mystery, one that works, in this instance, with a decidedly light touch." - Nicholas A. Basbanes, The Los Angeles Times

  • "While it helps to have some knowledge of Wttgenstein's finite rule paradox or Fermat's last theorem, anyone who loves a good mystery can share the quest for 'that merciful calm, that singular mental balm -- apparent order within chaos -- that comes as you follow the steps of a theorem.'" - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel starts promisingly, but about midway through it grows muddled with red herrings, misdirection and philosophical discourse. What should be a highbrow tale of suspense a la Umberto Eco becomes instead a simple act of literary sleight of hand." - David Lazarus, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It’s a tribute to Guillermo Martínez that he has managed to write an intellectual thriller that can be much enjoyed even by those -- myself included -- whose grasp of mathematics is limited. (...) Martínez’s somewhat quirky descriptions of Oxford add to the charm." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "But if Martinez excels at the cerebral game, he doesn't quite succeed when it comes to irony and social observation. His world feels a bit like a Platonic model, and his characters are rarely granted the illusion of free will. Nevertheless, Los crimenes de Oxford is well crafted and deeply entertaining." - Martin Schifino, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Martínez’ von Tempo, Anspielungsreichtum und philosophischer Raffinesse erschöpften Leser begreifen auch erst nach einer Weile, dass sie an der gelungensten mathematisch möglichen Widerlegung des laufenden Serienkillerschwachsinns und einem Revival des Rätselkrimis auf höchst elegantem Niveau teilgenommen haben." - Tobias Gohlis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Oxford Murders is narrated by an Argentinian maths student, describing events that took place when he went to Oxford on a scholarship in 1993. He only tells the story years after the fact, after hearing of the death of one of the people he knew there; clearly the truth -- or at least the whole story -- about the 'Oxford Series' of murders that happened that summer did not come to light at the time.
       Back then the narrator has arranged to room at the house of Mrs. Eagleton while at Oxford, a woman confined to a wheelchair living with her orphaned granddaughter, Beth. A few weeks after his arrival, Mrs. Eagleton is murdered. The narrator, along with Arthur Seldom, a "legend among mathematicians" -- indeed, "one of the four leading minds in the field of logic" -- finds the body.
       When they find the body, Seldom reveals that he came to the house because of a note he had received, announcing: "The first of the series", along with Mrs. Eagleton's name and address, a time, and a symbol drawn on it -- "a neatly drawn circle".
       It does turn out to be the first in a series: first there's another suspicious death -- in conjunction with another note -- , followed, eventually, by two more occurrences that are obviously continuations of the series.
       Several of the key figures in the novel are mathematicians, and the main lead -- the pieces of paper with different symbols on them -- suggest a mathematically based progression. Among the clever ideas utilised by Martínez is Wttgenstein's finite rule paradox: that for any series you can always find a rule justifying any continuation of the series ("The series 2,4,8, can be continued with the number 16, but also the number 10, or 2007"). And Gödel is, of course, also invoked.
       As long as they have only the first murder, message, and symbol they have no idea what comes next. Once there's a second symbol, they can make an educated guess -- and once there's a third they can feel fairly certain about what to expect next. But Wittgenstein's rule means there's no certainty. The way that Martinez applies these ideas is particularly inspired, making for the very neat idea that underlies the whole plot -- but it still makes for a somewhat awkward murder mystery.
       Part of the problem is in the focus on the characters: there's a curious lack of interest in many of the characters, and an evenness of tone as if Martinez did not want to favour one over another (especially among those who are to be seen as suspects). The failures of presenting the characters fully are most noticeable in the case of the inspector and Beth, but there are several others who are also too briefly and simply presented -- suggestively pushed centre-stage as potential suspects, and then shoved into the background again.
       On the other hand, what Martínez does very nicely is to insert smaller stories in the narrative, allowing characters to reveal themselves -- Seldom, in particular, is allowed to open up several times, and these are among the best parts of the book. The narrator's Oxford life is also fairly well presented, including the love affair he embarks on.
       The maths is well integrated into the book, and doesn't overwhelm it. This is also the summer of Andrew Wiles solving Fermat's theorem, and Martínez manages to use that fairly well as well.
       There's a leisurely pace to the book, but events still unfold too quickly -- the rich material deserves considerably fuller treatment. But Martinez's narrator presents the story in an agreeable style, and the idea behind it is appealingly clever. The Oxford Murders isn't entirely satisfying, but it's enjoyable enough.

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Links:

The Oxford Murders: Reviews: Other books by Guillermo Martínez under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author Guillermo Martínez was born in 1962. He teaches mathematics at the University of Buenos Aires.

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© 2005-2008 the complete review

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