What makes a series a series, rather than a random set? That’s a big question for mathematicians, including the nameless Argentinian graduate student who narrates this mind-twisting fictional treat. It’s also a question that lurks beneath the concept of serial murder, as the narrator discovers in the early days of a fellowship year at Oxford University. A handful of suspicious deaths, each occuring near Oxford and each accompanied by a mathematically themed message, raise the specter of a killer whose crimes follow a brutal inner logic. Aided by an illustrious older math scholar, the narrator undertakes to deduce the gist of that logic before the pattern becomes fatally obvious. Along the way, the two of them explore a troubling truth that geniuses like Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein had explored earlier: It’s impossible to determine with any certainty the rule that governs a series in progress. (Does the series 1-2-4, for example, advance by doubling the previous number, or by alternately doubling and squaring numbers, or by some altogether more obscure rule?)
Martínez, who hails from Argentina, makes no reference to his compatriot Jorge Borges—an odd lapse in a work of fairly self-conscious literary gamesmanship—but Borges’s dark and playful art looms vividly as an inspiration for this puzzle-driven, fantasy-like tale. The logically anti-logical “wonderland” of Oxford mathematician Lewis Carroll, whom Martínez does mention, also finds an echo here. And, wittingly or not, Martínez borrows heavily from Ellery Queen, who created or at least perfected the story type in which murder becomes a kind of language, “spoken” with lethal fluency by a mastermind who reduces death to an exercise in symbol-making. That said, the “Oxford murders” that unfold in these pages leave behind a residue of meaning that is far from bloodless.
[ADDENDUM: Through the magic of Googling, I see that some Spaniards made a film of this novel. Released in 2008, the movie stars Elijah Wood and John Hurt as, respectively, the Argentinian grad student and the crusty English don. I’d love to see it. But, as far as I can tell, it never made its way to U.S. theaters. And, in any event, it hasn’t made its way to the Netflix database.]