Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Guillermo Martinez: The Oxford Murders

Guillermo Martinez is an Argentinian author who has a PhD in Mathematical Science. He has written several highly acclaimed novels, and this one, The Oxford Murders, won the Planeta Prize.

The Planeta Prize, founded some 53 years ago, is not one I'd ever heard of, but it seems to be highly prestigious in the Spanish-speaking world. It also seems to be worth about $200,000 in cash, so it's definitely one worth winning.

The Oxford Murders turns out to be a classic detective story. I was going to say an old-fashioned detective story, but that would give the wrong impression. What is more, it belongs in that particular niche of the crime-fiction genre in which the puzzle is the overwhelming centre of attention.

By the way, while I think of it, the purest form of the detective novel which centres upon the puzzle is the locked-room mystery. What happens in such cases is that a person is found dead inside a locked room -- or sealed chamber, or whatever. The question that the detectives have to answer is basically how it was done; though the question of who did it and why is never forgotten.

One of the masters of the locked-room mystery was John Dickson Carr. Carr was at one time immensely popular, though I was never very keen on his work myself. To me it seemed to concentrate on the complications of how the crime was committed to such an extent that character and credibility often went out of the window. But in his day his books sold in vast numbers.

Should you wish to read an analysis of all the possible variations on the locked-room theme, you can find one in chapter XVII of Carr's novel The Three Coffins. And, if you're a really dedicated researcher in that field, you will also wish to track down an article by Bill Pronzini in the November 1981 issue of The Writer (volume 94, pages 11-15), entitled 'But That's Impossible'. Yes, it's amazing what information I've got tucked away in my files, isn't it? I surprise myself sometimes.

Back to The Oxford Murders. As the title makes clear, the novel is set in Oxford; the year is 1993. The narrator is an Argentinian mathematician who is spending a year in Oxford. Before long there occurs the first in a series of murders, and, in trying to solve these, the narrator works closely with an eminent man called Arthur Seldom.

Seldom is said to be a mathematical genius, and his area of expertise is logic. His most famous work is a philosophical extension of Godel's Theorem of Incompleteness, and his book includes a chapter on serial killers.

In the series of murders which the novel describes, the killer always leaves a clue, and the clue takes the form of a mathematical symbol which is clearly part of a series.

Well, you get the idea. What we have here is a puzzle of the intellectual variety. The characters are well drawn and not without interest, but the main focus is on the mystery of the symbols. Who committed the crime, and why, takes second place.

As you would expect in a writer with a mathematical mind, the book is cleverly constructed and includes the usual series of bluffs and false endings at the conclusion.

All in all then, a modern example of a genre which was once wildly popular but has now faded by comparison with books about pathologists and Hannibal Lecters.

The Oxford Murders is the only one of Martinez's books to be translated into English. It was first published in the UK, in paperback, earlier this year, and I see from my copy that it has been reprinted three times already. So it has evidently been a success, though reviews are hard to come by.

The book is, however, recommended reading for the boys of Harrow School. Well, at least there isn't any sex in it, so it's a safer choice than some.