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October 13, 2006

Maths, Magical Realism and Detection: The Oxford Murders - Guillermo Martínez

Posted by Helen Szamuely

The Oxford Murders
by Guillermo Martínez
London: Abacus, 2006
Paperback, £7.99

The detective story as a genre, despite a few French writers, began as an Anglospheric one. This may have something to do with the fact that the countries of the Anglosphere, notably Britain and the United States, developed a clear understanding of property and its rights earlier than many others. The early detective stories did not necessarily include murder. Often they were about misappropriation or potential misappropriation of property. Let's face it, the best of the modern ones are about money in some form or another. Murder often grows out of some other crime but there has to be a value put on human life, which numerous cultures and political systems do not. And there is an underlying theme of the police, also an Anglospheric notion. The police may not be particularly efficient but it is, on the whole, reasonably so and is, also reasonably, honest.

Still, there are detective stories written in other countries and other literary cultures. In particular, there are many written by Latin writers, Italians, Spaniards and South Americans. They tend to be different from the Anglospheric ones in that they are usually far more cerebral while also being far more bloody.

The Oxford Murders, was originally entitled Crímenes imperceptibles in Argentina, and renamed both in Spanish and English. The French have published the book under the title Mathématique du crime and the Germans called it Die Pythagoras-Morde. Oddly enough, all the titles are more or less accurate and give an interesting insight into the way different nationalities look at detective stories.

The author of the book is an Argentinian mathematician as is the narrator. The hero is an older professor of mathematics and the theme is serial in mathematics and in murder. Along the way there is a great deal of discussion about Pythagoras, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Wittgenstein's finite rule paradox and, even, Fermat's Last Theorem as the novel develops around the time Andrew Wiley produced his proof of it in 1993. Oh yes, Gödel crops up as well.

So much for the intellectual side. In fact, the novel will absorb readers who may know very little about all of the above and the author wears his learning lightly. There is no unnecessary showing off and no irritation. The mathematical concepts are discussed in an easily understandable fashion and are entirely necessary to the plot. I cannot help wondering how it will all be translated into film. One is being made even as I write this, with John Hurt in the main part of the professor of mathematics.

Guillermo Martínez is South American, which is, presumably why he must have magic in his novel. There is a performance by a magician (a true one, apparently, not just somebody who can perform tricks) and the theme fits in well with the Pythagorean one. And the bloodiness? Well, any novel that ends up with quite so many corpses has to be described as spectacularly bloody. Indeed, one of the themes is the well-known one of the person who commits one, seemingly well-justified act and finds himself drawn ever further into a terrible scenario.

In the end, however, the solution is reasonably straightforward and well signposted. There are problems with the characters and the atmosphere - neither is particularly well described and most of the former remain ciphers. But the plot moves along well, prodded forward, strangely enough, by those mathematical discussions.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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