AN ASSISTANT'S VIEW OF DETECTION
The best of the mystery stories may not be spine-chilling, but there has to be some action that will satiate the reader’s need for cerebral excitement. The Paris Enigma by Pablo De Santis, translated from Spanish by Mara Lethem, doesn’t have the kind of action that can qualify as ‘thrilling’. But with 12 detectives involved in the story, one cannot dismiss the book as being ‘another run-of-the-mill paperback’, without reading it first.
The story is narrated by one Sigmundo Salvatrio, who joins the training academy of detective Renato Craig in Buenos Aires. Along with the narrator there are others who join the Academy to learn the tricks of detection. Meanwhile, a magician by the name Kalidan arrives in the city too. He’s suspected of murdering his hired assistants elsewhere. Alarcon, one of Craig’s students, becomes the magician’s assistant to unearth the mystery. But he too goes missing. Kalidan is also found dead in a deserted building at the city’s suburb.
The story then moves to an international conference in Paris where 11 from among the famous 12 detectives meet during the time of Eiffel Tower’s inauguration. On the sidetracks of the conference, the assistants of the detectives meet, and then the detectives themselves get together. Craig is absent from the conference due to constant criticism back home over his failure to solve his student’s disappearance; so Salvatrio represents him. He is carrying his boss’ cane which has a lion’s head on it. His task includes meeting the famous detective Viktor Arzaky and describe to him whatever happened in Buenos Aires. And then Louis Darbon, another famous detective, who has been competing with Arzaky for the title of Detective of Paris, is killed. Was it an accident or there was some foul play?
The story being set in 1889, the author has tried to create an ambience of that period. Much of it reflects in the language and the mannerisms of the characters. Readers cannot complain on that count. However, only the ‘old-world’ feel doesn’t help to provide the pace that one expects from this type of stories, keeping the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as the set standard.
To be fair to the author, the story being told by a novice assistant, the masterful descriptions by characters like Dr James Watson or Captain Arthur Hastings might be missing. Plus the narration of the different mysteries that the detectives had dealt with in the past, and too many characters make reading tiresome. Therefore, till the author got the French sleuth killed, I was wondering whether it was a mystery story or a reportage of the unending brag-talk of the sleuths and their assistants.
With the character of Arzaky taking over the investigation into the death of Darbon, and the narrator becoming Arzaky’s assistant, the story began to mildly thrill me. The tussle between the detectives was somewhat interesting; the suddenness of the events, the description of the locales and a slew of questions brought back the much-wanted ‘pace’. But here too the author could not do away with some lengthy conversation that at times seemed to be leading nowhere.
The story has won the first Casa de las Americas prize for best Latin American novel. It offers a glimpse of Latin American mystery fiction and the publishers in India have organised a competition based on the story. These might attract the readers. Good luck to them. However, I am not looking forward to any story by De Santis. Blame it all on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie.