Jorge Luis Borges was undoubtedly the most “literary” of all practitioners of the detective story; in fact, he stated that he found within himself no other passion and almost no other exercise than literature. His interest in detective fiction stemmed from early encounters with the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he called the originator of the detective story, and G. K. Chesterton, whose combination of mysticism and ratiocination he admired most.
Borges repeatedly acknowledged his debt to the detective-story genre. What he admired most about the form is that whereas much modern literature is full of incoherence and opinion, the detective story represents order and what he called “the obligation to invent.” Indeed, the intrinsic relationship between the detective story and Borges’s fiction centers on the related issues of order, pattern, and plot, qualities that to him are most pronounced in short fiction. Borges rejected both the naïve realism and the discursive psychologizing of the novel, preferring instead the aesthetic tightness and consequent fantastic irrealism of the short story.
In one of his most famous statements on detective fiction, “Chesterton and the Labyrinths of the Detective Story,” Borges notes that whereas the detective novel borders on the character or psychological study, the detective story is an exercise in formal patterning and should abide by the following rules: The number of characters should be minimal; the resolution should tie up all loose ends; the emphasis should be on the “how” rather than the “who”; and the mystery should be so constructed that it is fit for only one solution, a solution at which the reader should marvel.
“The Approach to Almotásim”
Borges’s fascination with the possibilities of the detective story as a model for his fiction actually began with an experiment, with the 1936 essay “El acercamiento a Almotásim” (“The Approach to Almotásim”). The work is presented as a Borges review of a detective novel titled “The Approach to Almotásim,” written by a Bombay lawyer named Mir Bahadur Ali. Although Bahadur is fictitious and the novel is nonexistent, Borges summarizes its plot—his own fiction within this fictional review—and characterizes the novel as a union of rational detective fiction and Persian mysticism—a combination similar to that which Borges perceived in the works of Chesterton.
The plot of the fictional novel involves a nameless Bombay law student who kills, or thinks he kills, a Hindu in a street battle between Hindus and Muslims and who proceeds to flee the police—a flight that later turns into a pursuit of a man pure of soul. The novel ends just as the student finds this man, whose name is Almotásim. What most interests Borges the reviewer in the story is Almotásim as an image of the incarnation of the spiritual within the physical—a concept central to the stories of Chesterton. The story also introduces Borges’s concern with fiction as a metaphor for reality, rather than reality as a basis for fiction.
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi
Borges has called one of the chief events of his life his friendship with Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom he began editing classic detective novels and writing collaboratively in the 1940’s. Together they invented a third writer, Honorio Bustos Domecq, the pseudonym for the creator of a fictional detective named Isidro Parodi who is featured in their first collaborative book, Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi (1942; Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, 1981). Don Parodi, as his name suggests, is a parody of the rational detective; he is the reasoner and practitioner of absolute inaction, an armchair detective who cannot become involved in the events of the solution of a mystery because he is in a prison cell.
“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”
Most of Borges’s fictions emphasize, in one way or another, the highly formalized literariness and the mystical undercurrent of the detective story. In “Un examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” (“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”), Borges comments on a detective novel by a fictional author, summarizing the plot in the most conventional fashion. The twist of the story is that the solution proves to be erroneous and leads the reader back to discover another solution, which makes the reader more discerning...
(The entire section is 1827 words.)