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The Oxford Murders    by Guillermo Martinez order for
Oxford Murders
by Guillermo Martinez
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The front cover calls this short (less than two hundred pages) novel a 'scholarly whodunit', which is a good tag for a very clever mystery that Sherlock Holmes would have relished. The Oxford Murders was written by Argentinian Guillermo Martínez, who has a Ph.D. in mathematical science, and translated by Sonia Soto. The book won the Planeta Prize.

The protagonist is a new arrival to Oxford, a twenty-two year old Argentinian graduate student on a year's scholarship. He stays at lodgings organized by his supervisor in the home of elderly Mrs. Eagleton, who lives with her attractive, though somewhat bitter, granddaughter Beth. Two weeks later, he returns home to encounter at the front door a preoccupied stranger, who turns out to be Arthur Seldom, 'a legend amongst mathematicians.' Disturbed that there's no answer, they enter the house to find the old lady murdered. They call the police.

Seldom reveals that a strange message prompted him to check on Mrs. Eagleton. He'd written a book on logical series, including a chapter on serial killers. Since then, he's received all kinds of crank communications, but the address on this one made him anxious as he was a friend of the family. He - and the police - soon conclude that a murderer is basing his kills on a mathematical series. More deaths follow. The narrator suggests the whole thing is an intellectual challenge to Seldom, and that the killer is executing 'imperceptible murders' on victims who are 'living on borrowed time'.

The grad student develops a relationship with Lorna - nurse, crime afficionado and star tennis player. Through her he meets a child who desperately needs a lung transplant to survive, as well as the girl's father. Their joint discovery of a body leads to a burgeoning friendship - and a shared interest in developments in the case - between the Argentinian and Seldom. They uncover a link to a Pythagorean sect, while the inspector in the case organizes a psychological profile of the murderer, one that points to obsession.

Then comes the culmination of the series, a tragical ten pin strike, that resolves the case in a manner that satisfies the police. But, together, the misdirection in a magic show and a dead badger give our young protagonist the insights to make a leap of understanding that truly solves the case - and it's indeed an elegant solution, one that only a mathematician could devise. Guillermo Martínez brings something very special to the mystery scene with The Oxford Murders, a must read for fans of the genre.

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