Well, I have to say that the 2005 novel The Oxford Murders may be the most irritating book I have ever read. I found it in our wonderful little Blackheath (Blue Mountains) community library in Wentworth Street.
The title appealed to me because I love murder mysteries and I love Oxford. Some years ago I had the privilege of spending a few days in the Bodleian Library researching my own, non-fiction book. Many of the city’s landmarks feature in the novel, from the Ashmolean Museum, and the Sheldonian Theatre to the covered market, and the old pub frequented by C.S. Lewis and J,R. Tolkien.
Now admittedly I am hopeless at maths and this book was about a series of suspicious deaths being committed by someone fascinated by abstract theorems and logical sequences. He or she leaves cryptic symbols, beginning with a circle accompanied by the words, ‘One of a series.‘ The Argentinian author Guillermo Martinez is a mathematician himself, which explains a lot.
The story begins when an unnamed narrator, a graduate of Buenos Aires University, arrives in Oxford on a scholarship. He had previously completed a thesis on algebraic topology, whatever that is, Anyway, his elderly landlady becomes the first murder victim.
I persevered with the novel because The Times called it ‘An intellectual thriller that can be enjoyed even by those whose grasp of mathematics is limited.‘ Hmm, well not in my case. I skipped much of the interminable, very dull, theoretical conversations which did not advance the story at all.
Even without all the abstract maths this very short book (under 200 pages) could not be classed as a ‘cozy whodunnit’. Chapter eight is set in Radcliffe Hospital and is really disturbing. It reminded of something from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.
Have you ever heard of Godel’s theorem of incompleteness? If so, you may well enjoy The Oxford Murders. I Googled it and found a YouTube video, but it was totally beyond my intellectual capacity.
However, I did allow myself to become distracted by a particular puzzle. The character Professor Arthur Seldom is a leading mind in logic, and while discussing the case he presents the narrator with a challenge;
He searched his pockets until he found a pencil and a little notebook, then tore out a page and rested it on the cover of the notebook. Still walking, he carefully drew three figures and handed me the paper. We’d reached Magdalen Street, so I could make them out easily by the light of the street lights. The first figure was definitely a capital M, the second looked like a heart above a line and the third was the number 8.
The object was to find the fourth symbol. Here is some advice from Seldom; ‘If you can see the naked symbols simply as figures, you’ll find the constant that eradicates all previous meanings and gives you the key to how the series continues.‘
Before the narrator reaches home he solves the problem and says how easy it was. Oh yes? 😨
He didn’t disclose the solution, but I managed to find it on YouTube. It was nothing to do with mathematics or a ‘key’; at all, just a bit of a trick…well OK, I suppose it’s lateral thinking. In the following photo I have written out the symbols myself.
By the way, the answer is ,,,, FOUR. But the bigger question is how is it worked out?
Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler as it doesn’t relate to the plot.
The other aggravation with The Oxford Murders, at least for women, is sexism. The female characters are one dimensional caricatures with, as another reviewer put it, ‘…an emphasis on their breasts and asses..’. The narrator’s relationship with nurse Lorna is enough to curdle the blood of even a mildly feminist person such as myself.
In fairness I should add that the plot is actually very clever and that the book won a prestigious Spanish literary award; the Planeta Prize.
A movie of The Oxford Murders was released in 2008.
I can’t help wondering who put the novel in the street library, and what they made of it? Today I will put it back where I found it. No doubt someone else will soon be metaphorically wandering the streets of Oxford with murder and mathematics swirling around their brain. 😎
For more information on the movie, CLICK HERE