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The Paris Enigma
A Novel

by Pablo De Santis
Translated by Mara Lethem

      The Paris Enigma is subtitled "A Novel." While the publisher blurb on the back calls it "a classic mystery with a modern solution," it really is very much a novel first and a mystery second.

The story is set amongst The Twelve Detectives, a society of the greatest, most famous detectives from around the world. They have fans who follow their every move, journals chronicling their exploits and assistants / acolytes to act as foils while recording those same exploits for the masses. The Detectives and their acolytes are meeting in 1889 Paris, France, to socialize and discuss their trade, but also to exhibit at the Paris Worlds Fair. However, plans get changed as the crimes begin with the murder of one of their number.

There’s a rather stylized, almost ritualized feel to this story, starting with the whole conceit of a world divided amongst a group of famous master detectives. The Detectives and those they interact with seem more like collections of quirks designed to shock the reader and fill pre-established roles in the story than rounded, believable people. The main exception to this is the narrator, Argentinean Sigmundo Salvatrio, representing Craig (one of the co-founders of The Twelve), at the Paris gathering. The events, settings and crimes are as stylized and recherché as the characters. Those who’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories can’t help but see much of this as an over the top send up of the sort of people and plots found there, all full of eccentric detail, with no such thing as a simple, normal person, place, or occurrence. This is clearly intentional; and the writing is smoothly readable enough to make it work, with the reader only seriously pulled out of the story when the bizarreness becomes extreme.

Although the story is filled with real detection, the book is as much about the philosophical puzzles and the eccentric world that provide the background for the crimes and their solutions. The enigma rather than the simple Q&A of a basic criminal investigation. "Arzaky and his friends want to unravel mysteries, not complete them with the revelations of the enigma. If they embraced the mystery instead of confronting it, don’t you think they would come to a better understanding of their cases? Arzaky always finds the killer, but he loses sight of the truth."

Not my usual sort of book. I’m more of a straightforward mystery fan. But speaking as someone who usually finds consciously "literary" mysteries such as this rather offputting, it was very readable and offered an interesting world to visit.  Take a long step away from your everyday world and give it a try.

The Book

Harper Collins
Nov 2008
Literary Historical Mystery [Paris 1898]
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NOTE: De Santis won the inaugural Premio Planeta-Casa de América de Narrativa prize for best Latin American novel for The Paris Enigma.

The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2009
© 2009