Death and the Compass is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. It follows the final investigation of Erik Lonnrot a municipal detective who “thought of himself as a pure thinker, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of the adventurer in him, and even of the gamester.” In the course of a murder investigation at the Hotel du Nord, Lonnrot discovers (to the chagrin of his supervisor, Commisioner Treviranus) what he believes to be a grand conspiracy. Enlisting the help of a friendly reporter, Lonnrot follows a path to several more murders, culminating in a showdown with his arch-rival, Red Scharlach at the villa Triste-de-Leroi.

Arguing that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”, Borges subverts the detective genre by questioning the imperative in certain fictions to build elaborate cages in order to highlight the deductive skills of the protagonist. Lonnrot is the architect of his own demise because of his belief as summed up by the following exchange:

"There's no need to look for a Chimera, or a cat with three legs," Treviranus was saying as he brandished an imperious cigar. "We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee is the possessor of the finest sapphires in the world. Someone, intending to steal them, came in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky got up; the robber had to kill him. What do you think?"

"It's possible, but not interesting," Lonnrot answered. "You will reply that reality hasn't the slightest need to be of interest. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis you have postulated, chance intervenes largely. Here lies a dead rabbi; I should prefer a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber."


Adapted into a feature film by Alex Cox in 1996 and a short film in the late 1960’s.


Text available at Project Gutenberg: