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.