Death And The Compass by Jorge Luis Borges, 1942
The magic trick:
Completely subverting the murder mystery
I love murder mysteries. Always have. Blame it on endless afternoons eating cereal watching Scooby Doo. So, I’m going to particularly enjoy this week of classic mysteries on the SSMT site.
Where do we start? Sherlock? Poirot? The master originator Edgar Allan? Nope. We go to Argentina first for perhaps literature’s all-time fan of the mystery form: Jorge Luis Borges. Man, he loved ’em. I bet he liked Scooby Doo too. Even his densest, most literary stories often take on the trappings of a good ol’ fashioned murder mystery.
So we begin with “Death And The Compass,” which borrows a fair bit of its plot from the terrific ABC Murders by Agatha Christie. There is a joy to this writing. One can easily imagine Borge smiling the whole time he was typing it. Much of his work is like that, but this story in particular just pops along, thrilled to tell the reader what happens next. Of course, the ending is brilliant. The way he connects a suspenseful plot to deeper themes is brilliant. It’s all brilliant. And that’s quite a trick on Borges’s part.
“No need to go off on wild-goose chases here,” Treviranus was saying, as he brandished an imperious cigar. “We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee owns the finest sapphires in the world. Somebody intending to steal the sapphires broke in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky woke up, the burglar had to kill him. —What do you think?”
“Possible, but uninteresting, “Lönnrot replied. “You will reply that reality has not the slightest obligation to be interesting. I will reply in turn that reality may get along without that obligation, but hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you suggest, here, on the spur of the moment, chance plays a disproportionate role. What we have here is a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary bunglings of an imaginary burglar.”
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