Too many clues, too little puzzle
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
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.