‘La Muerte y la brújula’: a most Borgesian subversion of the detective genre

Etta Selim, Y13 pupil at Harris Westminster School (London)


Labyrinths and esoteric riddles

In many of Borges’ works, myriad false leads and tantalising hints are interwoven, crafting a sort of detective story that is further complicated by the network of labyrinths and esoteric riddles that criss-cross the narrative. In some stories deception is so key to the narrative that Borges tricks the reader into believing in an inverted reality; for example, in ‘La Forma de la Espada’, the anonymous saviour metamorphoses into Vincent Moon, as multiple layers of ambiguity serve to conceal this change. More noticeably, however, in ‘La muerte y la brújula’, it is the protagonist’s fixation with an ‘interesting’ explanation of a series of murders that obscures the true events of story, and it is this obsession that leads to his inevitable entrapment in a labyrinth constructed by his nemesis. The relationship of these details to the wider detective genre is therefore doubly tricky. Does Borges conform to the conventions of the genre or does he subvert them utterly? A character in Michael Butor’s novel L’emploi du temps encapsulates a key notion when he remarks that ‘all detective fiction is based on two murders of which the first, commited by the murderer, is merely the occasion for the second, in which he is the victim of the pure and unpunishable murderer, the detective’[1]. In ‘La Muerte y La Brújula’ we see a fascinating inversion of this trope, as it is Lönnrot who becomes the victim of the criminal Scharlach, and is duped into following an utterly false conception of the crimes. This key subversion rather suggests that Borges applies the trusted tools of the genre, in order to subvert its primary concerns.

Borges 2

Subversion and obfuscation

In the first place, Borges subverts the detective genre by creating a riveting veneer of Christian and Jewish esotericism that overlays the narrative, obfuscating – and eventually being supplanted by –puramente rabínica, no los imaginarios percances de un imaginario ladrón’, and the latter ‘[le] interesa la captura del hombre que apuñaló a este desconocido’. Even within these descriptions, Borges already plants the seeds of the complete overthrowal of Lönnrot’s description, as the ‘imaginarios percances de un imaginario ladrón’ that he scornfully disregards might more easily be read as a thickly ironic hypallage; it is Lönnrot himself who has been imagining a completely fictitious account of the murders.

Borges 3

Overturning the banal concerns of the whodunnit

Yet perhaps the most important reason why this becomes a subversion of the detective genre is the fact that Lönnrot himself – as well as the reader – is duped into believing the first, theological (rabbinical) explanation, a narrative deception that is two-fold. The very presence of this story in the Borgesian oeuvre is a sure sign, for seasoned Borges readers, that the banal concerns of a ‘whodunnit’ are about to be overturned, that the explanation truly lies in ‘un triángulo anónimo y en una polvorienta palabra griega’. These layers of imagery are made all the more convincing – and misleading – as elements of a detective story, by Lönnrot himself. Borges 4Borges writes about him that ‘se creía un puro razonador, un Auguste Dupin’, a confident assertion and intertextual reference that leads us to trust the naïve protagonist as one would trust Auguste Dupin’s searing intellect and reason, Dupin being the protagonist of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allen Poe, arguably the first modern detective story with Dupin as the prototypical astute detective and a precursor of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and so on. But even this trust is undermined, upon further analysis, by the typically Borgesian uncertainty of ‘se creía’: Lönnrot might believe himself a pure reasoner, but he is, in fact, far from being one. Nonetheless, we are unwittingly duped into disregarding Treviranus’ explanation, as well as his apt warning ‘no hay que buscarle tres pies al gato’ – made doubly ironic by the threes and fours that pepper the narrative in mockery of Lönnrot’s mistakes. This, if nothing else, constitutes the genius of this story as a subversion of the detective genre; the usually unequivocal authority of the protagonist, above that of a blundering police officer, melts away into nothing, as both his and the reader’s understanding of the murders turn out to be utterly false.

The inverted final showdown between Lönnrot and Red Scharlach

The final – and, I would argue, most vital – subversion of the detective genre becomes apparent only at the end of the story, when Scharlach reveals that he was the mastermind behind the murders, which were nothing more than an elaborate trap to capture Lönnrot. It is here that the established framework of a detective story becomes markedly inverted. Instead of the typical “Poirotesque” or “Sherlockholmsian” final confrontation, in which the triumphant reasoner accuses the murderer and launches into a minute explanation of their methods, it is Scharlach ‘who analyzes the detective’s modus operandi, lays a trap for him and, ultimately, reveals the true explanation of the events which have transpired’.[1] The story even ends with the criminal’s final victory: ‘retrocedió unos pasos’ and ‘muy cuidadosamente, hizo fuego’. This series of staccato remarks create a cinematic montage of Lönnrot’s final moments. Of course, this finality is questioned when Lönnrot suggests that next time Scharlach should attempt to kill him in Zeno’s paradox – ‘un laberinto griego [en que] se han perdido tantos filósofos que bien puede perderse un mero detective’ – hinting at a future encounter in the style of ‘El encuentro’. The possibility of a future confrontation between these arch-nemeses does mirror the Holmes-Moriarty dynamic typical of the detective genre. However, Scharlach’s victory ends both the story and Lönnrot’s life, ultimately inverting the typical resolution of a detective story.

Borges 5

An elaborate red herring

In conclusion, Borges creates a subversion of the detective genre so clever, that deception pervades every aspect of the story until the end, leaving us as ignorant as Lönnrot. Ironically, the series of murders is the most intellectually stimulating adventure of Lönnrot’s career as a detective, as well as an elaborate ‘red herring’ and the cause of his death. Yet, just as Scharlach reigns supreme over Lönnrot’s interpretation and his own revenge, so too does Borges preside over the crimes of the story. His skilful manipulation of labyrinths, detectives and villains all allow him to become the ultimate mastermind of his own stories, wielding his own reputation as an author with a penchant for the esoteric to trick the reader into an ironically false sense of security in the Borgesian symbols of eternity and intertextuality. Perhaps this is one of the most enticing aspects of Borges’ literary corpus. All of his stories are filled with ripples of the detective story, creating currents of uncanny similarity, yet each manages to distort the detective genre a little differently, each ending becoming impossible to pinpoint.


[1] Quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p.44

[2] David A. Boruchoff, “In Pursuit of the detective genre: ‘La muerte y la brújula’ of J. L. Borges” INTI, no. 21, 1985, pp. 13–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23284900 . Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.