Set against the backdrop of the World’s Fair of 1900, THE PARIS ENIGMA sees the world famous brotherhood of the Twelve Detectives come together for the first time to exhibit their craft and discuss their cases. As every great classical detective requires a Watsonlike familiar, their assistants are present as well. Sigmundo Salvatrio, assistant to Argentinian detective Renato Craig, narrates what happens when one of the famous sleuths is found murdered at the foot of the EiffelTower.
A journalist and editor of comic magazines, Argentinian Pablo De Santis is the author of a number of young adult books. This, his first foray into adult fiction, blends telling historical detail, faux naif humour and a touching homage to classic works of crime and mystery writing, with nods to Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the epitome of 19th-century crime writing, the ‘‘locked room’’ mystery.
e goes behind the scenes of the detective-assistant relationship, poking fun at the clichéd arrogance of the sleuth and the presumed ignorance of his Everyman sidekick. ‘‘Observe everything carefully,” the Pole Arzaky tells Salvatrio. ‘‘Any comment that occurs to you, make it: there is no greater inspiration for a detective than the frivolous words of the hoi polloi.”
De Santis, however, has more to offer than simple parody or pastiche, and asks philosophical questions about the very nature of crime writing and, by extension, fiction writing of all hues and stripes. ‘‘Was I finding a puzzle to solve in behaviour that wasn’t mysterious in the least,” asks Japanese savant Sakawa, ‘‘in people who were fated from birth to their unique deaths? I don’t have nightmares about crime; I dream about the blank page, I dream that I am the one who draws the ideograms where there was nothing, where there should always be nothing.”
Later, a minor character echoes the sentiment: ‘‘Our minds always search for hidden associations. We like things to rhyme. We can’t accept chaos, stupidity, the shapeless proliferation of evil.”
This is a sumptuous offering from De Santis, an elegantly styled novel of ideas coloured by self-deprecating humour that also boasts a page-turning mystery. But the author has yet another string to his bow. Salvatrio, to the horror of his fellow assistants, utters the ultimate heresy when he admits that he, from a working-class family, has aspirations of becoming a gentleman detective himself.
For devotees of crime fiction, the character of Salvatriopre figures the democratisation of the mystery narrative in the early decades of the 20th century when, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, protohard boiled writer Dashiell Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and dumped it back in the alley, where it belonged.’
And yet De Santis has his detectives, those rationalist devotees of reason and forensic detail, the forerunners of today’s fictional giants, upstaged by an intuitive understanding of the capricious workings of the human heart. It’s that final twist of the post-modern screw which suggests that De Santis is a novelist of immense promise. – Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.