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:
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?"
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: