Too many clues, too lit­tle puz­zle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jose Borgh­ino

AR­GENTINA has a long his­tory of in­tel­lec­tual crime thrillers go­ing back, at least, to the sto­ries that Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares co-wrote in the 1940s un­der the pseu­do­nyms H. Bus­tos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch.

Ar­gen­tine writer Pablo de San­tis plugged straight into this tra­di­tion in 2007 when his thriller, The Paris Enigma , beat 600 other en­tries to win the in­au­gu­ral $ US200,000 Plan­eta-Casa de Amer­ica Prize, a Lat­inAmer­i­can lit­er­ary prize cre­ated by Span­ish pub­lish­ing gi­ant Grupo Plan­eta and the con­sor­tium Casa de Amer­ica.

Hailed as an el­e­gant, lit­er­ary puz­zle thriller, The Paris Enigma has now ap­peared in English. Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of Sig­mundo Sal­va­trio, son of an Ar­gen­tine shoe­maker and devo­tee of the mag­a­zine Key to Crime, which fol­lows the ex­ploits of the Twelve De­tec­tives, a brother­hood of the world’s most fa­mous sleuths.

Their cases are writ­ten up in the mag­a­zine in penny-dread­ful prose by each de­tec­tive’s acolyte who, like multi-eth­nic Dr Wat­sons, func­tion as sound­ing boards, avoid us­ing their brains and never, un­der any cir­cum­stances, as­pire to be de­tec­tives them­selves.

The Buenos Aires mem­ber of this brother­hood, Re­nato Craig, is the only one without an acolyte. In 1888, he opens an academy of in­ves­ti­ga­tion to choose an off­sider, and puz­zlelov­ing Sal­va­trio leaps at the chance.

But when the academy’s star stu­dent

is mur­dered, the oth­ers quickly lose in­ter­est and Sal­va­trio is the last man stand­ing. The new acolyte is then thrown into the deep end when Craig falls ill and Sal­va­trio has to rep­re­sent him at the first gath­er­ing of the Twelve De­tec­tives at the 1889 World Fair in Paris.

For the erst­while cob­bler from Buenos Aires, Paris is a strange world, with the fu­ture on dis­play. Its great­est land­mark is Gus­tave Eif­fel’s ou­tra­geous tower of steel and air. Sur­rounded by the other de­tec­tives and their colour­ful acolytes, Sal­va­trio is soon en­gulfed in their in­creas­ingly es­o­teric ar­gu­ments about what im­age best de­fines the work of a de­tec­tive. A jig­saw puz­zle? A paint­ing in the style of Guiseppe Arcim­boldo? A rid­dle? A magic slate? Or a blank page?

He learns of the old en­mi­ties and many fis­sures that di­vide the brother­hood and, nat­u­rally, he learns that noth­ing is ever quite what it seems.

When one of

the

de­tec­tives

is mur­dered in­ves­ti­gat­ing the her­metic sects that threaten to de­stroy the Eif­fel Tower, cu­ri­ous, un­con­ven­tional Sal­va­trio breaks ranks and is drawn into the hid­den worlds of crypto-Chris­tians, ab­sinthe and opium dens, for­bid­den books and sym­bolic paint­ings.

He must dis­cover what links the oilbesmeared death of Louis Dar­bon, the Paris de­tec­tive, with the cre­ma­tion of a head­less corpse in one of the World Fair’s pavil­ions and the death of a woman in a frozen pool. And who is the incog­nito acolyte who keeps beat­ing Sal­va­trio to the clues?

At first blush The Paris Enigma has it

all: idea-laden and al­lu­sive lit­er­ary writ­ing, a de­tec­tive story filled with in­tel­lec­tual puz­zles, the buzz of myr­iad colour­ful char­ac­ters cir­cu­lat­ing in a fas­ci­nat­ing and iden­ti­fi­able his­tor­i­cal set­ting. Yet it is sadly un­sat­is­fy­ing.

The thing about a who­dunit is that the why­dunit is al­most as im­por­tant. In The Paris Enigma the why of the case is both ob­vi­ous and dis­ap­point­ing, since the reader has dis­missed it early on in the face of an over­whelm­ing tor­rent of plot de­vices, false leads and the shoals of red her­rings that swim past.

There is sim­ply too much in­for­ma­tion here to make an ap­peal­ing thriller. There are too many de­tec­tives and acolytes, too many puz­zles, al­lu­sions and de­tails to keep track of. And yet there isn’t enough to grasp on to that en­ables a reader to solve the puz­zle along with the de­tec­tive.

Sal­va­trio rushes from lo­ca­tion to lo­ca­tion to no real ef­fect. Yet, in­ex­pe­ri­enced as he is, he man­ages to solve both the who and the why. For the reader, though — no mat­ter how ob­vi­ous the so­lu­tion — how Sal­va­trio could have worked it out amid all the ver­biage re­mains a mys­tery.

True to its Bor­ge­sian pedi­gree, words are cru­cial to the so­lu­tion of the puz­zle in The Paris Enigma , not only in Sal­va­trio’s retelling of some of the de­tec­tives’ cases, but also in the knowl­edge that he only knows about them from what he read in Key to Crime, and that th­ese them­selves were ver­sions writ­ten by the acolytes at one re­move.

Words may be im­por­tant in The Paris Enigma , but they also hold the reader at bay and negate the novel’s claims to el­e­gance.

Borges’s sly, limpid lan­guage made his sto­ries ac­ces­si­ble and si­mul­ta­ne­ously mys­te­ri­ous. But with clunky sen­tences such as, ‘‘ The tower flaunted its blend of grandios­ity and fu­til­ity at the grey sky’’, there’s lit­tle chance for us to ig­nore the fact that The Paris Enigma has too many words and not enough puz­zle. Jose Borgh­ino lec­tures in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

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