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Murder in the equation

The Oxford Murders A Mystery Guillermo Martinez Translated from the Spanish by Sonia Soto MacAdam/Cage: 198 pp., $23

October 23, 2005|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of several books, including "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books" and the forthcoming "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World."

"THE Oxford Murders" is, for lack of a better term, a mathematical mystery, with a bit of highbrow thriller thrown in for good measure. The first suggestion that this is a different kind of whodunit comes in the novel's second paragraph, when the unnamed narrator describes his younger self and his interests at the time of the deaths described in the book.

Newly arrived in England for a year of research at Oxford University, the narrator is a 22-year-old doctoral student from Argentina with secret plans: He intends to shift his academic focus from algebraic topology to logic during the forthcoming term. This seemingly dull, esoteric detail in fact speaks volumes about the approach he will take to unravel several perplexing deaths in the academic community.

The young man rents a room from a Mrs. Eagleton, a widowed invalid and onetime crossword puzzle whiz who was a code breaker during World War II. Two weeks after moving into her house, the budding scholar returns from his studies to find her dead in her wheelchair. He makes the grim discovery in the company of a man he has just met at the front door, Arthur Seldom, a brilliant mathematician and friend of the woman's family. Seldom had rushed to the house in response to what he tells police was an unsigned note in his office mailbox.

"First in a series," the note cryptically disclosed; along with those words were the woman's address, the time of the murder and the figure of a circle. Seldom -- who becomes something of a mentor to the narrator -- soon theorizes that he probably was singled out because of a well-received book on "logical series" he had written that "foolishly included a chapter on serial killers." The circle, he opined, might possibly be "the first symbol in a logical series" of murders -- a challenge, in effect, for him to figure out the sequence and to predict the identities of future victims.

The immediate problem, of course, is the need of a second term to suggest a pattern. "With only the first symbol," Seldom notes ominously, "we're still completely in the dark." Before long, however, another message is received, with an address and a time, and the drawing of a fish, resembling two overlapping parentheses. The pair are too late to identify the next victim, a hospitalized, elderly man whose death is considered natural until a small injection mark is noticed on his throat.

"I don't think the deaths are what really matters to him," Seldom concludes. "The murders are almost symbolic." Symbolic of what? Gradually, it becomes clear that the killer is intimately connected to Seldom and his theorems.

Would it help readers to have a solid grounding in the incompleteness theorem postulated in 1931 by the logician Kurt Godel -- that every true statement cannot always be proven to be true? You bet it would, and it wouldn't hurt to have a confident grasp of Ludwig Wittgenstein's finite rule paradox either, an argument holding that any sequence of finite numbers can be extended in multiple ways, some of them natural and orderly -- 3, 6, 12, 24, for instance -- and others not so predictable, yet equally valid.

Several more deaths, and several more symbols, raise the tension further. Through all this, there is no shortage of suspects -- a few, in fact, are telegraphed more broadly than others -- giving the mathematically challenged among us a fair shot at solving the puzzles by more conventional modes of detection.

Guillermo Martinez -- who holds a doctorate in mathematical science from the University of Buenos Aires -- has written a number of story collections and novels, one of which -- this one, in fact -- won the Planeta Prize, the Spanish-language version of England's Booker Prize. The general reader might be occasionally slowed by some of Seldom and other characters' weightier statements, but this will surely appeal to readers with a yen for science and mathematics. On the other hand, the tale Martinez offers in "The Oxford Murders" just might engage anyone who simply enjoys a cleverly structured mystery, one that works, in this instance, with a decidedly light touch. One plus one, we learn, does not always equal two. *

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