What drives writer and mathematician Guillermo Martinez is a desire to create his own cosmos. The 53-year-old Argentinian is in Mumbai for the Tata Literature Live! Festival and will participate in a discussion on the elements of great detective fiction on Sunday, the final day.
Two of Martinez’s most-acclaimed detective novels, The Oxford Murder and The Book of Murder, are as much about the theories of crime and crime fiction as about fictional murders. He says, “I wrote The Oxford Murders over two years while pursuing post-doctoral studies at the Mathematical Institute in Oxford University. I was feeling nostalgic for the detective fiction that I used to read when I was a teenager.”
His deep love for and immersion in the world of detective fiction comes through in his works. The Oxford Murders, published in 2003, is not your average whodunit — it also focuses on the centrality of theory in most detective fiction. He says, “It all comes from the history of detective fiction. We begin with Edgar Allan Poe’s C Auguste Dupin, who relies on his powers of ratiocination to solve crimes. While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes uses deductive science, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot employs psychological insights.”
Martinez wanted to draw on these tropes and at the same time, go beyond them to create a fictional detective who understands the limitations of theories and would be able to take intuitive leaps — he calls this “the knight’s leap”, as in chess — to solve crime. “My detective, the logician Arthur Seldom, thinks that most people believe in theories not just because they get a degree of certainty, but also because they find these theories aesthetically appealing,” he says.
In the book, this “aesthetically-pleasing” theory is that of a serial killer taunting the detective by leaving clues in the form of mathematical puzzles. All the evidence fits this theory and yet the solution, when it appears, fits the evidence just as well, no matter that it does not come as a result of logical deduction, but by “the knight’s leap of intuition”.
Martinez has a great love for classic crime fiction by the likes of GK Chesterton and Wilkie Collins, and professes an intellectual debt to the master of literary riddling and puzzling, Jorge Luis Borges. He hasn’t kept a tab on what’s happening in contemporary crime fiction.
Although he considers himself to be a writer first — he published his first book of short stories, Vast Hell, in 1989 before going to university — being a mathematician helps.
Martinez says, “When you’re dealing with a mathematical problem, you need to be embedded in a lot of theorems, cases and backgrounds. It is the same with writing. Before you start your novel, you need to be aware of the history and the tropes that you’re drawing on. Then, as you write or solve your mathematical problem, something sparks in you. All the information you have absorbed gives rise to something you recognise as belonging to you. It’s a breakthrough.” Or, “the knight’s leap”.