Still underwhelmed

oxford skyline

Guillermo Martinez The Oxford Murders Abacus 2005

A series of crimes:
are they related, and are
they indeed all crimes?

With its history, architecture and unique atmosphere Oxford is a great setting for novels, films and TV series, and has appeared in works as diverse as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series. I’d have high hopes for any novel with Oxford in the title, anticipating it would have that particular mix associated with the city, blended with classy writing. This was claimed to be a clever whodunit using mathematics and symbols to create a very Borgesian mystery, and the reader would surely expect to have their brain cells on high alert for a large proportion of this murder mystery.

However, I was underwhelmed when I first read this novel a few years ago, and remained underwhelmed on a later reading. I thought that a more favourable second opinion might result from revisiting the evidence but now have found even more inconsistencies and implausibilities to go with the plentiful red herrings, such as why the narrator decides to go public with the murder details when one of the protagonists is dead but fails to mention the continued existence of the murderer (who would surely be prosecuted if known to be still alive). And don’t get me started on the description of the surreal open-air concert at Blenheim Palace.

The unnamed narrator (who is obviously a fictionalised version of the author) is a strangely blank character, devoid of real personality. He goes through the motions of feelings, it seems to me, but despite having an affair with one character and being a confidant of sorts to another, he doesn’t really make any believable connections. Is it to do with being an outsider, both an Argentinian and a PhD student (though strangely with no teaching commitments)? Or has his academic preoccupation with mathematics buffered him from feelings of empathy with his colleagues and murder victims?

Don’t get me wrong, there are sections where the plot pulls you along and a handful of mildly interesting mathematical discussions (though I’m not sure that specialists need to spell out basics to each other in conversation). But, along with the narrator, I felt really disengaged most of the time. The curious badger road-victim motif was a very apt metaphor as were the tennis episodes which cropped up every so often while clues and speculations were batted to and fro: but ultimately The Oxford Murders felt like a pre-match warm-up rather than a game with a satisfying and convincing result. And not only did this not seem to me to be a fault one could blame on the translation, there was little, apart from a few topographical references, that really anchored this to Oxford as opposed to any provincial town with a university. A big disappointment, all in all.

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7 thoughts on “Still underwhelmed

  1. Underwhelmed…I felt the same when I read this after its hyped arrival. Disappointed, too, as it appeared to have the makings of a gripping, satisfying whodunnit in a great setting. Ah, well. But you’ve just reminded me that I’ve got Philip Pullman’s ‘Lyra’s Oxford’, bought when I was IN Oxford, somewhere on the to-read shelf.

    1. Ah, Lyra’s Oxford, a lovely vignette which partly assuages the pangs felt after the trilogy ends and whets the appetite for The Book of Dust — whenever that appears. My hardback edition (lent out or missing, at the moment) has all those lovely extras, map, postcards etc which enrich Lyra’s world and make her Oxford so much more real than the one offered here.

  2. As someone born and bred in Oxford just about everything written ‘in’ Oxford rather ruffles us townies (how ever well educated we are) as ‘stuff’ written or filmed about the place is never about the Oxford we know ( and sometimes, but not always love). Even Morse (on TV) spends too much time going up and down the splendid 300 metres that is St Giles (near the Randolph Hotel) to get to heaven knows where, Its pure illusion! And there are so many other backgrounds to use in Oxford! Too much of the ‘Gown’ element. is in everything written or filmed (and planned) in Oxford!. I haven’t read ‘The Oxford Murders ‘ yet, but I have now become seriously fascinated to do so having read your review, as I would like to identify anything in the book that rings true ( to me) about the place that I call Oxford! It would make a change to get even the slightest glimpse of the other .authentic Oxford ringing out of the pages even if the central character seems rather flat!.Or will I be disappointed? .

    1. I’ve now recycled the book to a charity shop (not very charitable I know to foist it on an unsuspecting shopper) so can’t quote chapter and verse. But for a story set in both town and gown I didn’t get much sense of place. I’d be most interested to hear your reactions!

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