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Authors: Pablo De Santis

The Paris Enigma

BOOK: The Paris Enigma
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The Paris Enigma

A Novel

Pablo De Santis

Translated From Spanish by Mara Lethem


Part I
        Detective Craig's Final Case

Part II
       The Symposium

Part III
      The Tower's Opponents

Part IV
      The Fire Sign

Part V
       The Fourth Rule


y name is Sigmundo Salvatrio. My father came to Buenos Aires from a town north of Genoa and made his living as a cobbler. When he married my mother, he already owned a shoe-repair shop specializing in men's footwear (he never felt comfortable fixing women's shoes). As a child, I often helped him with this work. Today, people in my profession view my method for classifying fingerprints (the Salvatrio method) with high regard—I owe that crime-solving innovation to the many hours I spent among the lasts and soles that filled our shop. I came to realize that detectives and shoemakers see the world from beneath, both focusing more on the footsteps that have strayed away from their intended path than the path itself.

My father was no spendthrift. Every time my mother asked for a little extra money, Renzo Salvatrio would say that wanton spending would eventually force us to subsist on boiled boot soles as Napoleon's soldiers had done during their Russian campaign. But despite his frugality, once a year he allowed himself an extravagance: on my birthday he would buy me a jigsaw puzzle.

He began the tradition with a hundred-piece puzzle, and each year the puzzles got more and more complex, until finally they had fifteen hundred pieces. They were made in Trieste and came in wooden boxes. Once they were complete you'd discover a watercolor of the
Dome of Milan, or the Parthenon, or an old map with monsters lying in wait at the ends of the Earth. It always took me many days to finish them. My father believed that jigsaw puzzles were rigorous training for mental and visual acuity. He helped me enthusiastically but generally wasn't very good because he paid more attention to the color of the pieces than to their shape. I let him do it his way, and then I fixed them when he wasn't looking.

“An investigation and a jigsaw puzzle have nothing in common,” swore Renato Craig, who would later become my mentor. But nevertheless it was this hobby that, in February 1888, led me to answer the ad Craig published in the newspaper. Renato Craig, the famous detective, the only one in Buenos Aires, wanted to share his knowledge, for the first time, with a group of young people. Over the course of a year, the chosen students would learn the art of investigation, preparing them to assist even the best of detectives. I still have the newspaper clipping; the ad was on the same page as a story about the arrival of Kalidán, a Hindu magician touring the country.

The detective's ad excited me, not only because of what it heralded, but also because it meant that Craig, Craig the loner, was finally willing to allow other human beings to learn his methods. Craig was a founding member of The Twelve, a group of the most elite detectives in the world. It was Craig himself who introduced the term
to The Twelve Detectives as a way to refer to their assistants. During one of the group's first meetings, in 1872, he explained this designation with a definition from a dictionary of Latinisms: ACOLYTE: said of one that follows another as if he were his shadow.

Every member of the club had his acolyte, except for Craig. In the magazine,
The Key to Crime
, Craig had often defended his position by saying that acolytes weren't necessary to a detective, and that the nature of the profession called for solitude. Another member of the group, Viktor Arzaky, who was Craig's good friend, had always been critical of this assessment. The fact that Craig was now willing to train assistants was a direct contradiction to his previous philosophy.

n order to be considered for the academy, I had to send a letter in my own hand that explained why I was applying. There was one rule: Don't mention your background; nothing that you've done up until this point has any value to me. I asked my father for a few of the pages that he used for his business correspondence, with letterhead that read Salvatrio's Cobbler's Shop above a drawing of a patent leather boot. I cut off the top of each page: I didn't want Craig to know I was the son of a cobbler.

In my first draft of the letter, I wrote that I wanted to learn the art of investigation because I had always been interested in the big crime cases that I read about in the newspaper. But I tore up that page and decided to start over. I really wasn't interested in gory crimes, but in the other kind: the perfect enigmas, the ones that, at first glance, were inexplicable. I liked to see how—in a disorganized but predictable world—an organized, but totally unpredictable way of reasoning emerged. I had no hope of becoming a detective; just being an assistant was a goal worthy of my concerted efforts. But at night, alone in my room, I imagined myself aloof, ironic, and pure, making my way, like Craig, through a world of facades, discovering the truth buried beneath the false leads, beyond the distractions and the blind gaze of habit.

I don't know how many nervous, hopeful people sent letters to De
tective Craig's house at number 171 De la Merced Street, but it must have been a lot, because months later, when I was already one of the academy's top students, I found a heap of dusty envelopes. Many of them had never been opened, as if one glance at the handwriting had been enough for Craig to know if an applicant was unsuitable. Craig maintained that graphology was an exact science. Among those letters I found the one I had sent; it was also still sealed, which left me baffled. When Craig ordered me to burn them, I did so with a sense of relief.

On March 15, 1888, at ten o'clock in the morning, I arrived at the door of his building on De la Merced Street. I had chosen to walk instead of taking the streetcar, but I quickly regretted that decision because a freezing rain, a sign that autumn was on its way, fell the whole way there. When I got to the door I found about twenty other young men, all as nervous as I was. At first I thought they were aristocrats, and that I was the only one who arrived without status, family name, or fortune. To cover their unease they tried to inscribe their faces with the contemptuous expression Craig wore when his picture appeared on the front pages of newspapers or the yellow cover of
The Key to Crime
, a biweekly serial that sold for twenty-five cents. It was the local version of
, the official journal of The Twelve Detectives, published by Adrien Grimas, in Paris. But
The Key to Crime
was an inexpensive publication of only thirty-six pages, while
had the format of an academic journal. Two or three cases filled the pages of
The Key to Crime.
The cover was yellow, with an ink drawing that showed either an illustration of one of the detectives, or the most horrific image from the account of one of the cases. On the last page there was a column titled “In Hushed Tones” where brief notices of the detectives' lives appeared. I sometimes complained about the rather frivolous nature of this section (it informed readers that Detective Castelvetia was keen on snuff, that Rojo spent quite a bit of time investigating the brothels of a certain Madrid neighborhood, or that Caleb Lawson had finally broken off his engagement) but I very much enjoyed reading it.

Surprisingly, Craig himself answered the door. We were expecting some sort of butler who served as a buffer between the detective and the world. We were so disconcerted that, instead of going in, we each made way for the others to enter first. The comedy routine would have continued for hours if Craig hadn't grabbed hold of the first arm he found and pulled it inside. Immediately, we all followed in a line, as if we were tied together by a rope.

I had read about that house in
The Key to Crime
. Having no assistant, Craig wrote about his adventures himself; in these stories his vanity transformed the house into a temple of knowledge. The other detectives maintained a dialogue with their adherents, who served as the voice of the common man. Craig had these conversations with himself, asking the questions and providing the answers, giving the impression that he was quite insane. He depicted himself in the solitude of his study, admiring his collection of Flemish watercolors or cleaning his numerous weapons: daggers hidden in fans, pistols in Bibles, and swords in umbrellas. His favorite secret weapon, of course, was his cane, which appeared in many of his stories: its lion-shaped handle had cracked open more than one head, its retractable stiletto had rested, threateningly, on the carotid artery of numerous suspects, and its resounding shot had cut through many a night. One hardly needed to carry anything else. Inside, we went through the rooms searching the high walls, furniture, and mantelpieces for those weapons and instruments, which to us were like the Holy Grail, Excalibur, or the Mambrino's helmet of detective work.

For me, going into that house was like visiting a sacred site. When you actually encounter that which you have always dreamed of, the details aren't as important as the fact that it's real, that it is dense and limited, without that intangible tendency to shape-shift that dreams have. It is delightful when the fantasy becomes real, but disappointing that it means the fantasy must come to an end.

Craig lived with his wife, Margarita Rivera de Craig, but their residence had that damp coldness of empty houses, a feeling that was enhanced by the unfurnished rooms and bare walls. Fifteen years earlier they had lost a child, only a few months old, and it seemed as though they had abandoned most of the house. The Craigs' bedrooms were on the third floor and his study was on the first. It was carpeted, and had a huge desk that held a Hammond typewriter, which at that time was a novelty. Other than that, there were just empty halls and vacant rooms. For a moment I had the impression that Craig decided to set up the academy just to vanquish the lonely dampness of that house; it was too big for the servants they had: Angela, a Spanish woman from Galicia that took care of the kitchen, and a maid. Angela barely spoke to Craig, but twice a week she made rice pudding with cinnamon, his favorite dessert, and she always eagerly awaited Craig's approval.

“Not even in the Progress Club do they make rice pudding this good. I don't know what I'd do without you,” said the detective. And that was the only time he ever addressed her.

The cook had abrupt mood swings, as if the power the house held over her was sporadic. Sometimes she would sing old Spanish songs at the top of her lungs as she dusted, so loudly that Señora Craig would scold her. Angela either didn't hear the reprimands or she just pretended that she couldn't. Other times, she took on a resigned, defeated attitude. When she opened the door for me in the mornings I remarked on the weather, and no matter what it was she took it as a bad omen.

“It's awfully hot. That's not a good sign.”

Or if it was cold, she'd say, “Too cold. That can't be good.”

And if it was neither hot nor cold: “On a day like this a person doesn't know what to wear. Bad omen.”

Drizzle, rain, lack of rain, storms, long periods without any storms, any climatic condition would get the exact same condemnation from Angela.

“Up until yesterday, we were having a drought. Now comes a flood.”


That first day, one of the happiest of my life, Craig spoke to us about his method. But his talk seemed designed to discourage us; he listed obstacles, described failures, probably to weed out those of us who weren't truly dedicated to that occupation which required endless patience. But none of us could hear the language of defeat, because no matter what happened during our training period, even the bad things, this was all an adventure we yearned to have. He could really scare us only by threatening us with a normal life—practicing law, responsible parenthood, going to bed early. All twenty-one of us who showed up that first day came back the next, and the next. The big, empty house began to fill up. Craig ordered new things that arrived constantly. He seemed to have the irrational idea that the accumulation of things was meant to contribute to the cult of reason. From the very beginning Craig's teachings were destined to alert me to that ambiguity: it is in the moment when we are thinking most clearly that we are closest to madness.

BOOK: The Paris Enigma
10.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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