Saturday, 2 December 2017

#45 A book beginning with ‘the’

The Oxford Murders  Guillermo Martinez (translated by Sonia Soto)

This was certainly a random pick to suit the condition. This book by Argentinian author Guillermo Martinez uses a mix of mathematics and murder mystery to make an intriguing cocktail.
It actually begins as the narrator (who remains unnamed) embarks on a flashback to the time he was goes to Oxford as graduate student , taking a room within the house of an elderly lady who had helped decipher the Enigma Code during WWII. He meets Arthur Seldom, a renowned Oxford logician who is an idol of his who has happened to have written a book about the parallels between investigations of serial killers and certain mathematical theorems.

The narrator finds his landlady, Mrs Eagleton, murdered in her parlour, he learns Seldom had received an anonymous note bearing a circle and the words, 'the first of the series’. The mathematical symbols are the key to a mysterious sequence of murders. Each new death is accompanied by a different mathematical shape, starting with the circle. It seems that the serial killer can be stopped only if someone can crack the next symbol in the sequence. The math graduate is joined by Arthur Seldom on the quest to crack the cryptic clues. It is up to the mentor and student to solve the puzzle before the killer strikes again.

There are plenty of mathematicians in the whole story, including the narrator, his mentor, the first victim and so on. There are also plenty of discussions on mathematics and logic which is an important part of the mystery. It includes brief disquisitions on Gödel's theorem, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Wittgenstein's paradox, which demonstrates "the impossibility of establishing an unambiguous rule." None of that helps very much in solving the crimes, but it makes an intriguing context for the author's exploration of a fundamental mystery theme—how we impose meaningful patterns on the confusing evidence of reality and are in turn misled and blinded by those patterns.

There are many similarities between cracking a crime and trying to prove a mathematical theorem. Quite often the mathematical world is scattered with a sequence of clues, and the art of the mathematician is to try to piece together a coherent and logical argument to explain the evidence. It is no surprise to learn that the author of the book, Guillermo Martínez, has a PhD in mathematics.
Even though the ending wasn’t predictable, I still didn’t completely enjoy the mystery. It wasn’t because of the mathematical discussions or explanations, which were in fact explained quite lucidly (surprising since the speakers are both expert mathematicians and there isn’t any need between them to simplify the thermos), the series of crimes also keeps one guessing, however the characters were hardly well-developed so much so we don’t know enough about them to understand or connect to them. And in the end this could be said to be its major downfall. 

It did blend in the mathematics and crime aspects quite well and one wonders if the characters were better drawn out, it could have led to something far more thrilling. Would be an interesting read for math aficionados :)

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