Thursday, July 12, 2012

Death of a Detective: Pablo De Santis' The Paris Enigma

Books always contain secrets. We leave things between their pages and forget about them: lottery tickets, newspaper clippings, a postcard we've just received. But there are also flowers, leaves that attracted us with their shapes, or insects trapped in a paragraph's snare.



Renato Craig, the famous detective of Buenos Aires, and one amongst the elite group of twelve world-famous detectives decides to open an academy to teach a chosen few the art of investigation. Amongst those who are granted admission is young Sigmundo Salvatrio who has been fascinated by jigsaw puzzles right from the beginning: I really wasn't interested in gory crimes but in the other kind: the perfect enigmas, the ones that at first glance, were inexplicable. I liked to see how in a disorganized but predictable world - an organized but totally unpredictable way of reasoning emerged. .

However when the final test goes horribly wrong - resulting in the death of one of the students - Craig falls from grace. Though the beleaguered detective solves the case, his health deteriorates so that it is Salvatrio who goes to Paris as Craig's representative at the time of the 1889 World's Fair in Paris where all the 12 detectives were to be together for the first time. Salvatrio meets the detectives and their acolytes, each with his own methods and idiosyncrasies.

There is the English detective Caleb Lawson (a caricature of Sherlock Holmes with his trademark pipe). His Indian assistant Dandavi - all yellow turban and gold chain - who specialises in quasi-philosophical remarks like: 'When the time comes, we all learn to speak, and to be quiet.'  Tamayak, a Sioux Indian, who Salvatrio is shocked to see is not wearing a feathered head-dress, or carrying a tomahawk or a peace pipe or any of the other accoutrements Indians usually have in magazine illustrations. Manul Araujo, the assistant to Spanish detective, Fermin Rojo, who embellishes the narration of his master's cases by making the detective go inside a volcano or fight a giant octopus!

Again things go horribly wrong as the body of one of the detectives, the French man, Louis Darbon, is found at the base of the still-under-construction Eiffel Tower. Did he slip or was he murdered? The other detectives instead of working together start accusing each other. As their egos come in the way and the in-fighting escalates, a series of deaths occur next. Are these deaths inter-related? Is somebody challenging the detectives? What role will Salvatrio play in the investigations?

Though written in his reflective years:-

It is true that the innovations of 1889 that so dazzled us and promised to turn our cities into dizzingly vertical landscapes are now old hat. Most of the inventions gathered in the Galarie des Machines (Vaupatrin's submarine; Grolid's excavator; the artificial heart invented by Dr. Sprague, who turned out to be a fraud; Mendes's robot for organizing archives) must be stored in a warehouse somewhere, if they haven't already been dismantled. Meanwhile, the war has shown itself to be the true world's fair of all human technology' and Somme and Verdun's trenches the true venues for technology to demonstrate its material and philosophical reach.

- the narrative conveys the breathless excitement of a starry-eyed youngster who finds himself suddenly propelled in an august gathering.

There is little of plot but I liked the different characters as well as the different view-points put forward regarding the art of investigation. For some it is a blank-page, for some a jigsaw puzzle, for some the riddle of the sphinx. There is also an interesting discussion regarding what are known as 'locked-room' mysteries:

"Calling a murder a "locked-room crime" is the wrong approach to the investigation because it assumes that locks are infallible. There are no truly locked rooms. Calling it that presupposes an impossibility. In order to solve a problem, it has to be correctly posited. We mustn't let semantics cloud our logic."


'Every murder is a "locked-room" case. The locked room is the criminal's mind.'


'The locked room is the essence of our work. It doesn't matter if the room doesn't actually exist. We must accept its metaphorical power.'

The book is not a gripping murder mystery but an interesting read nevertheless regarding our fascination with riddles and enigmas. And so, I will end this rather long post with one such posed by the Grimm brothers:

Three women had been turned into flowers by a witch. One of them however, was able to recover her human form at night in order to sleep at home with her husband. Once, as dawn approached, she told him, "if you go to the field to see the three flowers and you can tell which one is me, pull me up and I will be freed from the spell." And the next day her husband went to the field, recognized his wife and saved her. How did he do it, when the three flowers were identical?

If you haven't read the book but have guessed the answer, leave it in the comments below. Best :)

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Read as part of the Paris in July event.






I stayed in the Necart hotel at the time of the World Exhibition in 1889, climbed the Eiffel tower, and visited many localities of Paris.


Also read as part of the Spanish Literature Month. I loved certain tongue-in-cheek remarks about the Argentinians:

How could I tell them that I was from Argentina and geographically doomed to talk more than I should? The Japanese assistant, who up until that moment had been watching everything as if he couldn't understand a word, left looking so distresses that I thought he had gone to find his sword so he could stab me, or stab himself - I wasn't sure.


I know how you Argentines are, so I feel obliged to offer you some advice: practise keeping silent.


Your accent and your arrogance are familiar to me....Are you Aregentine? Me too.

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First Line: My name is Sigmundo Salvatrio.

Title: The Paris Enigma

Author: Pablo De Santis

Original Title: El Enigma de Paris

Original Language: Spanish

Translator: Mara Letham

Publication Details: London: Harper Collins, 2009

First Published: Spanish, 2007; English 2009

Pages: 324


Other Book Read: None


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The book can be purchased online and  from bookshops. I purchased it from a shop at South Ex.

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Submitted for the Death by Gaslight Challenge



Also submitted for the following challenges: A-Z Titles, Books in Translation, European Reading, Find the Cover, Mount TBR, Mystery and Suspense, New Authors, TBR Pile, Unread Book


2 comments:

  1. I read this a few years ago, Neer, and thought it was OK but not particularly strong overall. I liked some of De Santis' commentary--like the passage about theatergoers who are happy to leave a play so they can get back to reality, where they are most comfortable, and other spectators who prefer the illusion to their real lives outside the theater--but neither the mystery nor the descriptions of Buenos Aires and Paris seemed all that compelling. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the work and thanks for joining us for Spansih Lit Month. Cheers!

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    1. Thanks for having a look Richard. I liked it because of the characters and certain riddles. Thanks for hosting the event. I'm thinking of picking up Shadow of the Wind next.

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