The Oxford Murders Review, Nthposition, 2005

This review is one which has come to occupy a certain place in my mental landscape of being a writer. A review reflects many things, and one is the circumstances of the reviewer at the time. This is my paradigmatic example. I had just finished MRCPsych part 1 exams and had gone many months only reading psychopharmacology and the like. This was the first non-medical, non-psychiatric book I had read in some months. My unqualified rave might have been a little more qualified at other times.

In retrospect, I enjoy the opening paragraphs. A certain sunniness evident at the pleasure and privilege of reviewing books, not quite for a living, but with the knowledge of publication to follow.

I think I read an advance copy in late 2004 and the review was “held” until 2005.

The Oxford murders
Guillermo Martinez

Everybody likes to tell you how awful their life is. Writers are no different, always moaning about the sheer torture of putting words together. And book reviewers are just the same, complaining about the drudgery of wading through unreadable books and having to write about them afterwards.

The truth is totally different. Reviewing books, for any one who actually likes reading (and you’d like to think, wouldn’t you, that most book reviewers do) is great fun and highly recommended. The awful torture stuff is just hooey, to try and stop other people getting in on such a wonderful game.

These buoyant thoughts on book reviewing are occasioned by reading Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, already a best seller in Spain and Argentina and destined, it seems, to be a runaway success everywhere else (“rights have been sold in 13 countries” the jacket informs us). I read this book straight through in more or less one sitting (“sitting” is perhaps inaccurate, as halfway through I went for a walk still holding the pages in front of me, braving late-evening traffic. Honestly, the fearless sacrifices I make for the art of book reviewing.) Going through the motions of book reviewing seems rather superfluous in this case – although as you will see I found The Oxford Murders not entirely flawless – given that pleasure is surely one of the primary reasons we read.

One should remember, of course, the First Impressions Don’t Last principle of aesthetic pleasure. How many films or pieces of music, which make a spectacular first impression, later turn out to be less glorious than the initial rush of pleasure indicated. Conversely how often does one initially feel indifferent to a song or poem that later seeps deep into consciousness. Having read over the book again since the initial rush of literary pleasure, The Oxford Murders seems to having staying power.

At this point I will say that enthusiasts of Borges (whose ‘Death and the Compass’ the book owes much to) and the Chesterton of the Father Brown stories (explicitly invoked in the final chapters), of those tantalising books like The Man Who Loved Only Numbers andThe Mystery of the Aleph which persuade one, however briefly, that the world of pure mathematics is both exciting and accessible, should abandon reading this review and add The Oxford Murders to their to-read list. You’ll love it. Come back when you’ve read and see what you think of the rest of this review.

Everyone else still reading this, well I guess we still need to persuade y’all. So here’s a bit of exposition, as is the way with review. Set in 1993 (it turns out), in the summer before Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was announced (it turns out), the story is told by a young Argentinian mathematician who comes to study in Oxford at the beginning of the summer. He lives with an elderly landlady who was involved in the Enigma codebreaking during World War II, and her grand-daughter, initially seeming sensuous and carefree, later her bitterness and frustration become apparent.

Within days his landlady is dead, and legendary Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Arthur Seldom, Holmes to our narrator’s Watson, is drawn into the case when a mysterious note bearing a circle and the words ‘the first of the series’ is placed in his pigeonhole. What follows is a sparking story of maths, sex (Argentinian mathematicians have a surprising amount of sex, based on the evidence of this novel at least), logic, romance and the criminal mind. And a surprisingly moving climax.

As well as squeezing in stuff on Wittgenstein’s finite rule paradox, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theorem, The Oxford Murders is old fashioned, almost “classical”, detective story. Red herrings abound, and I was drawn into guessing whodunnit. (Not only was I wrong, but it was the wrong question.)

Some may feel that there are too many gobbets of rarefied talk about Wittgenstein and incompleteness and such, and those who care about such things will notice that none of the characters are especially credible, but they will miss the point of this wonderful jeu de espirit. I’m very reluctant to describe the plot in greater detail, as it is one of the great pleasures of the book.

I wrote earlier that this was “almost” a classical whodunnit. It isn’t really, as the classical whodunnit all the information available to the detective is available to the reader from the outset, and one of the major characters present throughout turns out to be the guilty party, rather than a minor or incidental character. At first there is a slight deus ex machina air to the what one initially takes to be the denouement, and then a subsequent twist that restores one’s faith in Martinez’s powers. And there is perhaps a little too much of the old cliché of ha!-those-plodding-coppers-no-match-for-the-intuitive-intellect-of-a-mathematician/artist/bohemian about some sections. Enough already about the plot! And enough already with the churlish caveats! Read it or die trying.

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