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The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez

A Challenging Mystery

One has to admire Guillermo Martinez for publishing his book, The Oxford Murders, in a time when the public will no doubt make comparisons to other titles. In this tale, a young Argentinean mathematician earns a fellowship to Oxford. During his first weeks there, he meets a few luminaries in his field, makes out with his tennis partner, and unluckily happens upon the dead body of his landlady. I can see the dialogue between the book clerk who has to describe this book to prospective customers.

Clerk: How about a story about a landlady who gets brutally murdered?

Customer: Mmm, some Russian guy already did that.

Clerk: Well, it's really a story involving secret codes in a European locale?

Customer: Mmm, I think Tom Hanks is starring in the movie version.

At first glance, The Oxford Murders does ring like some poor man's Dan Brown knockoff. The murders in the book come with a note attached that reads "first in a series". Our hero becomes the protégé of Arthur Seldom, a famous logician and the man the murderer has pinpointed as the recipient of his notes: the worthy adversary. Indeed, more cryptic notes and murders follow.

The story, translated from the Spanish by Sonia Soto, is shorter than most mystery novels, and carries with it the rhythms of a short story populated by a number of characters. None of the characters hit a false note, although some are more likable than others. The male characters tend to speak in theories, and the emotional tones are handed to the landlady's daughter, Beth, and the narrator's conquest, Lorna.

Our unnamed narrator makes quiet observations. He is a comfortable driver. With the exception of words like "pigeonhole" for mailbox, there is little to suggest that this locale is specifically British in anyway. The allusions to setting could be any small university town filled with eccentrics on bicycles and grad students forced to work administrative tasks they dismiss as beneath them.

Alfred Hitchcock was once asked what differentiates a movie of mystery from a movie of suspense. A movie of mystery, he said, is an intellectual process, something that evokes curiosity and resolves with explanation. A movie of suspense is an emotional process where the viewer is put in a role of involvement. Everything that happens to our hero, happens to us.

There is a reason the book is billed as a "mystery" versus "suspense". The novel is intellectual and detached and, like all good puzzles, something to challenge you for a spell.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez
Translated by Sonia Soto
October 16, 2005
MacAdam/Cage
Hardcover/$23
ISBN: 1-59692-150-1
200 pages