I apologize in advance: this is going to be another one of those reviews where I say at the outset that I don’t like mysteries very much but that every so often I read them, and then I’m going to proceed to be surprised that I didn’t much like the mystery that I am reviewing. I have a feeling that my readers are much less surprised by this dislike than I am.
Somewhere along the line, I developed a taste for novels about math. I’m not sure how that happened. I do know that the last time I studied math formally (A.P. Calculus – 1993-94), the only thing that got me through the year was the evocative language. I reveled in it. Right now, the only example I can think of is “as x approaches negative infinity,” which I still find a way to use in my own interior monologues once or twice a week. When I was teaching, I often had students brainstorm as many mathematical terms as they could think of, and then I assigned them to use these terms in their poems. Take a mathematical word or phrase out of context, and it becomes an instant metaphor. One of my poetry professors back in grad school used to say, “If God can talk, he speaks calculus.”
The Oxford Murders purports to be about math, but either the math in this novel is so subtle that I can’t understand it, or it’s just sort of lame. One of the problems with this novel is that its most interesting character, Mrs. Eagleton, is the one who dies in the second chapter. I suppose this is something that mystery writers have to contend with. A murder that serves as the impetus for the novel’s plot has to be interesting – so the person who is killed, therefore, is usually someone with a lot of complex relationships and/or a lot of secrets – but not so interesting that the plot’s energy falls all to pieces the minute the victim is killed.
Mrs. Eagleton is an elderly widow and the landlady of this novel’s protagonist, a 22 year-old Argentinian grad student who has come to Oxford to study math. Rumors swirl around Mrs. Eagleton: that she is a brilliant mathematician, and specifically that she was one of the scholars who worked on the Enigma Code during World War II.
Now – I will read absolutely anything about the Enigma Code. But when Mrs. Eagleton dies, the novel shifts away from her own life and focuses more on the narrator, a professor named Arthur Seldom, Mrs. Eagleton’s granddaughter Beth, and a woman named Lorna, who is the protagonist’s love interest and tennis partner. We never learn what Mrs. Eagleton did to help crack the Enigma code – or even if there is any truth to that rumor. I would much rather read a novel about Mrs. Eagleton – her childhood and schooling, what she did to distinguish herself to the point where she was asked to help with Enigma, and then what her life was like after the war. I like the idea of an intellectual friendship between the elderly Mrs. Eagleton and her young, timid tenant – it makes me think of the Jhumpa Lahiri story “The Third and Final Continent,” which I love – and I wish Martinez had killed off someone else and let the protagonist and Mrs. Eagleton solve the mystery together.
Now for its strengths: the plot does involve an ancient secret society – the Pythagorean brotherhood – and I am a sucker for ancient secret societies (including the Essenes, in spite of the fact that for about a month in my early twenties they gave me such bad nightmares that I actually moved). And like most ancient secret societies (at least in novels) the Pythagorean Brotherhood had certain symbols that tend to show up in the margins of ancient manuscripts and make a bunch of professors wet their pants. And I do enjoy books about ancient symbols that make people wet their pants.
But here’s the thing: when I finished this book, my first thought was that I wanted to go and read a book about the Pythagorean brotherhood. So sure – this novel stoked my curiosity, which is a good thing, but it took me a while to realize that, supposedly, I had just finished a book about the Pythagorean brotherhood. The Oxford Murders is not a scholarly work and doesn’t pretend to be, but I know from experience that I am more than capable of reading lightweight fiction and tricking myself into believing I have learned something important about math or science or history. When I read a Dan Brown novel, I am aware that what I am reading is a lowbrow thriller while also congratulating myself for learning so many new things about art, about history, about Catholicism. I get a self-esteem boost as well as a chance to lose myself in escape fiction – and this was the kind of nerdgasm I was hoping to have when I chose to read The Oxford Murders. What I got instead, unfortunately, was a formulaic novel that seemed at times to bore even its protagonist.