Death and the Compass

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Erik Lönnrot

Erik Lönnrot is a detective who is highly cerebral in his methods. He considers himself a “pure reasoner,” not unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. Although Lönnrot regards himself as a creature of pure thought, the narrator states that “there was something of the adventurer in him, and even of the gamester.” Lönnrot is convinced that Dr. Yarmolinsky’s death is best approached as an intellectual puzzle rather than—as Commissioner Treviranus believes—an accident occasioned by the failure of a jewel theft. He begins to attempt a solution by studying Yarmolinky’s books in depth, and devotes three months to “sedentary investigation,” during which time the elaborate pattern underlying the series of crimes gradually becomes clear to him. Ultimately, however, Lönnrot’s brilliance in discovering theoretical patterns leads him to act without practical forethought and makes his own behavior easier to predict.

Red Scharlach

Red Scharlach is initially described as “the most illustrious gunman in the South.” He is the antagonist and nemesis of Erik Lönnrot, whom he has hated since Lönnrot arrested his brother three years prior. In the fight that occurred on the Rue de Toulon that night, Scharlach was severely wounded and lay in the villa of Triste-le-Roy for nine days. During this time, he developed a delirious fixation with labyrinths and swore “to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother.” Despite plotting his revenge so long and so meticulously, Scharlach seems wearily indifferent to his accomplishment of it. Lönnrot hears in his voice “a fatigued triumph, a hatred the size of the universe, a sadness no smaller than that hatred.” This fatigue does not prevent him from explaining his plans and motivations in considerable detail and with obvious pride in his own intellectual superiority.

Inspector Franz Treviranus

Treviranus is a high-ranking inspector who considers himself a practical man and has no use for Lönnrot’s abstruse and elaborate theories. He is particularly irritated by the apparently bookish and cerebral nature of the three murder cases, remarking after Yarmolinsky’s death that he has no time “to waste on Jewish superstitions.” Although Treviranus is wrong in assuming there is no intellectual pattern underlying the murders, he is correct to question the validity of Lönnrot’s theories. Ultimately, the plot is driven by a far simpler motivation than the mystical quest Lönnrot suspects.

The Editor of the Yidische Zaitung

The Editor of the Yidische Zaitung is described as a timid man and, despite his editorship of a Jewish paper, an atheist. He interviews Lönnrot and publishes an article stating “in three columns, that the investigator Erik Lönnrot had dedicated himself to studying the names of God in order to come across the name of the murderer.” He later publishes an editorial after the disappearance of Gryphius-Ginzberg, stating that he does not believe, as everyone else apparently does, that an anti-Semitic plot is afoot.

Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky

Dr. Yarmolinsky is Podolsk’s delegate to the Third Talmudic Congress. He is described as a stoical man with a gray beard and gray eyes. He brings to the Nôotel du Nord the complete collection of his writings, “a row of tall books,” but few other possessions. He is the first victim to be found murdered, wrapped in a cape with a stab wound in his chest. A suggestive sentence is found in his typewriter: “The first letter of the Name has been uttered. ” Lönnrot takes this to be a statement of the murderer. In truth, Yarmolinsky himself wrote the sentence, a product of his scholarship, and Scharlach expands the sentence into a complicated pattern that plays upon Lönnrot’s intellectual...

(This entire section contains 767 words.)

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Daniel Simon Azevedo

Daniel Simon Azevedo is the second victim. He is a bandit and “political tough” and possibly an informer. He is found lying in the shadow of a paint shop in the city’s western suburbs. Like Dr. Yarmolinsky, he is wrapped in a cape and has a stab wound in his chest, a demise described as particularly appropriate for the “last representative of a generation of bandits who knew how to handle a dagger, but not a revolver.”


A caller who identifies himself as Ginzberg—or Ginsburg—tells the Commissioner that he can explain “the two sacrifices of Azevedo and Yarmolinsky.” He turns out to be operating under a double cover, staying in a seedy room on the Rue de Toulon under the name of Gryphius, which is itself a cover for the identity of Red Scharlach.