Rowland Bismark's Reviews > The Paris Enigma

The Paris Enigma by Pablo De Santis
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Aug 03, 10

The Paris Enigma is narrated by Sigmundo Salvatrio, the son of a cobbler. His own career-path began when he saw an ad in a Buenos Aires newspaper in 1888, the famous (and only) local detective Renato Craig willing to share his knowledge and teach a select group of young men his trade. Salvatrio is among the chosen few, and begins to learn from this man who is one of 'The Twelve' -- The Twelve Detectives, "a group of the most elite detectives in the world". Salvatrio -- and all the others -- all hope to be chosen as Craig's acolyte at the end of their training. The early frontrunner for the position seems to be much better than the rest, but he gets himself murdered -- leading to Craig's 'last case', in which he proves the guilt of the person responsible.

For Craig -- indeed, for all The Twelve -- it is all about the subtle art of detection. They go into raptures reminiscing about finding: "so much symmetry, such balance in those crimes ... They were clear, elegant, without so much as one extra drop of blood", and it is the perfection of the puzzle rather than the grimy reasons behind it that appeal to them. Hence:

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.

Craig lets Salvatrio in on how he solved his 'last case', and that certainly makes an impression on the young would-be acolyte; surprisingly, it does not completely disillusion him. Craig obviously has some faith in him, and selects him to go to Paris, where The Twelve are to meet at the World's Fair, in his stead. It was to be the first time they were all to be assembled together, but Craig is in no condition to travel (or work as a detective any longer).

The other detectives, from a variety of countries, all have their various acolytes, making for a very colourful cast of characters. Looming over everything is the brand new Eiffel Tower, the centrepiece of the fair, on which the finishing touches are still being made. Naturally, soon enough, there is murder.

Salvatrio gets to help out on the case, which sees some of the various secrets and jealousies of The Twelve revealed. Along the way, there's also lots of talk of other cases -- after all: we need a bit of leisure, after-dinner chats. We are professionals, but there is no detective that isn't also a bit of a dilettante. we are travelers, driven by the winds of coincidence and distraction to the locked room that hides the crime.

These grand pronouncements, and the focus on the elegance of solutions, make for an odd tone to the book, giving it the feel of an almost entirely cerebral thriller even as rather messy and mundane crimes occur. The Twelve seem largely abstract thinkers -- and Salvatrio is drawn to that too -- even as everyone else gets their hands dirty. But, as Craig's 'last crime' already suggested early on, even the detectives can't stick solely to clever speculation, no matter how clever it is.

There are many enjoyable little puzzles and neatly solved crimes in The Paris Enigma, but it is a sprawling, crowded book, with Salvatrio skipping and skimming a bit too lightly across it all. There are always very many others involved, which proves distracting, and Salvatrio isn't a strong enough personality to prevent interest from constantly drifting elsewhere. De Santis' focus on the almost metaphysical aspects of the crimes has its appeal but is also not entirely successful; The Twelve would have had to be drawn much more fully for all of that to really work.

The Paris Enigma ultimately feels more like a crowded sketch than a full novel. It has considerable appeal, but isn't completely satisfying.

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