A heady mystery for the literary set.
In his latest outing, Hartman (The Rules of Dreaming, 2013) delivers a suspenseful, pitch-perfect novel with an unlikely lead detective: a fictionalized version of iconic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The story takes place outside Boston in 1967, as recollected by narrator Nick Martin—an ailing elderly man who once spent a semester as Borges’ graduate assistant and amateur gumshoe sidekick while the author was a visiting lecturer. Shortly after the eccentric Borges’ arrival, a murder within Nick’s department is revealed to have a surprise literary twist, and he and the author team up to solve the crime. The murder turns out to be the first in a series of strange tragedies in the area, all with some sort of connection to literature or philosophy. The crimes fit in well with Borges’ latest academic fascination, Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 satirical essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” and Nick and Borges have long philosophic discourses at a local coffee shop, where they discuss the nature of reality as Nick pines for a beautiful waitress. “The world is crowded with illusionists,” Borges declares during one case, “trying to pass off an imperfect copy of something as the real thing.” Indeed, the world Hartman conjures certainly is crowded with illusionists. Although the prose is sometimes heavy with words that feel as if they were plucked from a thesaurus (“Inevitably the conversation gravitated to the purpose of our visit”), the author’s fine-tuned intellect and vivid reimagining of Borges make for a thought-provoking and compelling read. Plot points that might initially seem hard to believe are, more often than not, not quite what they seem, as Hartman’s story always stays two steps ahead of the reader. Enthusiasts of both philosophy and slick detective stories are sure to enjoy this probing inquiry into humanity’s darker impulses. Borges fans, in particular, will appreciate the book’s clever take on metafiction—not to mention the character’s sly quips: “Don’t the police in this country read Sherlock Holmes?”
An intelligent, original detective novel.