The Paris Enigma

“In the life of every actor, musician, singer, or writer there is always a moment when they begin to play the role of themselves, and everything that they do in the present is merely a ceremony with which they invoke something from the past, And life becomes, for the artist or the detective, the incessant fine-tuning of their own legend.”

So far this year I’ve already read two books set at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, Black Elk in Paris and Murder on the Eiffel Tower, so I figured I would round it out with The Paris Enigma by Pablo de Santis.

Sigmundo Salvatrio is thrilled to finally be chosen as acolyte for Renato Craig, Buenos Aires’ premier investigator and co-founder of the international society The Twelve Detectives. But Craig is not quite the same since his final case and sends Salvatrio in his place to the first-ever meeting at the World’s Fair. Soon the detectives number ten, however, and Salvatrio must now assist Parisian co-founder Arzaky in finding the connections among a new series of crimes.

I think the book has a fascinating premise. It looks at the World’s Fair in two ways, as a global meeting ground where cultures are in contact as never before, and as a demonstration of the exponential progress of human creativity and technology. De Santis then takes these two ideas and applies them to the art of investigations. His detectives trade stories about past successes and debate the philosophical impetuses and implications of their trade. Their cases are written up in publications poured over by youth everywhere. Yet their orderly world of physiognomy and locked room puzzles is vanishing as crime becomes more senseless and widespread.

Personally I wasn’t as fond of the emphasis on secret societies, but that may be what the jacket meant by “a classic mystery with a modern solution.” The Twelve Detectives have elaborate rules and a history of feuds, and as Salvatrio and Arzaky investigate they meet groups like “crypto-Catholics” who see secret messages everywhere and interpret the new iron tower as an omen. De Santis pointed out the parallels between people who look for signs in large monuments as a guide to daily life, and detectives who look for the smallest signs at the scene of the crime and interpret them to explain events. Overall this inclusion was not gratuitous, but at times I feared it would become too Da Vinci Code.

The novel has some weaknesses, and the narrative seemed especially slow at the beginning. Some of this is done to put later events into perspective but it left me wondering when the story would actually start. On the other hand I felt things were hinted at and never fully explained, like whether there was a deeper relationship between Alarcon and the Craig family. Finally, there are a lot of characters. Early on I stopped and made a list of all the detectives and assistants, as well as their countries of origin. I didn’t really need to refer to it afterwards as de Santis continued to identify them in the text for a while, but twenty-four people is a lot to keep track of.

This book was translated from Spanish by Mara Lethem (de Santis is Argentinian), so it’s another one for the Lost in Translation Challenge.

Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 12:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] The Paris Enigma, by Pablo de Santis (Spanish) […]

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