Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

One of the great pleasures of mysteries is that they are often filled with specialist knowledge of various fields. I think of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, full of murderous collectors and Egyptologists, or the stories of Gordianus the Finder, which explicate the hazards of being a slave in ancient Rome and the correct method of making garum. I learn a lot from books like that; in fact, I've been known to tell my sister that everything I ever learned came from a mystery. But what makes the knowledge fun is that, besides providing an interesting background, it serves to provide the motive or the means for the crime.

That's not the case with the extremely thin (more a novella than a novel, hardly worth $13 even if I liked it) and disappointing The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez. An Argentinian grad student comes to Oxford to study mathematics. Soon his landlady is murdered. Police suspect her heir, Beth, but famous mathematician Arthur Seldom soon convinces them that this is the work of a serial killer with something to prove. More deaths follow, culminating in the crash of a busload of kids.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other A-list publications have spilled a lot of ink about how "intellectual" and "cerebral" this book is, but don't believe it. Sure, there are lots of discussions about Wittgenstein and Fermat and Pythagoras, but you don't need to understand them or even pay attention to solve the crimes. They have nothing to do with the plot. The culprits are perfectly obvious and their motives straightforward.

All the mathematical content is nothing more than hand-waving and trickery by Seldom (and the author) to distract from the very simple solution. Beth murdered Mrs. Eagleton for her money and manipulated Seldom into covering for her because he is her biological father. The two subsequent "murders" were natural deaths spun by Seldom to fool the police. And the crash was caused by the bus driver, a father desperate to find an organ donor for his terminally ill daughter.

The real mystery is the protagonist. Appropriately nameless, because he is nothing but a cipher, he figures out the real solution after all the crimes are blamed on the conveniently dead bus driver. But you know, even though the case is officially closed, it's not really too late. The grad student could go to the police with what he knows. Why does he agree to keep silent (evidently for years)? Out of regard for Seldom, who used him and whom he barely knows? Out of consideration for Beth, whom he dislikes and distrusts?

What I really want to know is what happens to him afterward. Does he stay in Oxford for the rest of the year, living in Beth's basement?

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