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THE PARIS ENIGMA
by Pablo de Santis and Maria Lethem, trans.
Harper Perennial , December 2009
256 pages
$13.99
ISBN: 0061479683


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In this quirky, philosophy-filled mystery, young Sigmundo Salvatrio, a cobbler's son, dreams of becoming a detective one day. To that end, he joins the Buenos Aires academy of the great detective Renato Craig, founding member of The Twelve – a group of the most famous detectives in the world. When Craig's favorite pupil is killed during a case, sending the master detective into a downward spiral of depression, all the other would-be investigators leave the academy, except for Salvatrio. And when Craig is hospitalized by illness, he sends Salvatrio to Paris for a meeting of The Twelve, which coincides with preparations for the World's Fair and the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

The Twelve are an interesting bunch, led by cofounder Viktor Arzaky, who has to cajole the detectives to give up tools of their trade so he can have something to fill up the empty shelves of the detectives' showcase for the fair. The detectives spend more time philosophizing about enigmas than detecting – until one of their own is murdered on the Eiffel Tower.

Arzaky, who is one of two Paris detectives, takes the lead, with Salvatrio as his assistant. The suspects are as eccentric as the detectives. One of them has filled the walls of his home with favorite quotations from books, and then gotten rid of the books. As he says, "Every book has unpleasant sentences, ideas that attack the main structure, words that cancel out other ones, and I want to eliminate all that. The path to the perfect quote is winding and takes years to travel, but when one arrives, it justifies all the unhappiness that reading gives us.

THE PARIS ENIGMA won the Premio Planeta-Casa de América prize for best Latin American novel and, in the tradition of many Latin American novels, has a bit of a surreal feel to it. And while it is filled with crimes, red herrings and investigators, it is not a detective novel in the usual sense. It is more about the art of detection, the perfect puzzle and the passions behind the crimes. It's filled with many digressions – discussions of the Twelve's past cases and wonderful descriptions of the World's Fair, among them. Those looking for a straight-forward thriller won't find it in this meandering book. Still, it's an enchanting and engaging book, and thoroughly enjoyable. Maria Lethem's translation is fluid and readable.

§ Lourdes Venard is a newspaper editor in Long Island, N.Y.

Reviewed by Lourdes Venard, May 2010

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