Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, as the dust jacket reveals, is part of the publisher’s program to supply all of Borges’ major works in English translation. Although the goal is commendable, one may doubt whether the book would ever have appeared had Borges not been its coauthor. Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi was first published in Argentina in 1942 under the pseudonym “H. Bustos Domecq,” and remained untranslated until now; it consists of six detective stories which are interesting and sometimes amusing, but which are neither brilliant in themselves nor essential to an understanding of Borges’ development as a writer.
The choice of the detective genre deserves some explanation. Borges is well-known not only as a great fantasist but also as one of South America’s leading authorities on English and American literature. The detective story is an important part of the English-language tradition, and Borges studied its origins and forms as they appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. Borges’ criticism of the detective story preceded his own efforts in the genre, and he fell prey to a temptation to which others have succumbed: something about the detective story inspires its admirers to lay down rules for its execution, and Borges was no exception. In 1935, he wrote a piece entitled “Los laberintos policiales y Chesterton” for the Argentine literary magazine Sur. An English translation of the article is now available, in Borges: A Reader (1981), edited by Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid. In the article, entitled “Chesterton and the Labyrinths of the Detective Story,” Borges describes his own idea of the “code” of the detective short story (he excludes the detective novel from some of these rules).
The detective story should possess, according to Borges, (1) a maximum of six characters, to the violation of which rule he attributes what he calls “the tedium of all detective movies” (it should be remembered that the essay was written in 1935); (2) the early inclusion of all information needed to solve the mystery (that is, no strangers are brought in at the last minute as culprits, no clues become crucial unless the reader has had the opportunity earlier to grasp their significance); (3) the strict economy of means, that is, the inclusion in the story of nothing unnecessary to the plot; (4) a recognition by the author that how the crime was committed is more important than who committed it, especially if the revelation of the criminal consists of the mere naming of a name without a personality; and (5) that the mystery must have only one possible solution and that the solution must be surprising without resorting to the supernatural. Borges says that he derived the five points from reading G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries, although the points apply as well as such sets usually do to any “classic” detective story, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” to something published in the latest issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The rules will furnish a useful measuring stick for examining the stories in Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi.
Throughout his writings, Borges frequently mentions Chesterton—in one of the stories in this volume, “The Nights of Goliadkin,” a criminal adopts the alias of “Father Brown”—but the English writer is not the only influence on Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi. One of the most noticeable of these other influences affects Borges’ central character, Don Isidro Parodi, and the kind of detective that he is. Two brothers created by Arthur Conan Doyle illustrate the principal types of sleuth: the first of these is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, whose ratiocination is so overpowering that it frequently obscures the fact that Holmes is primarily a man of action. His characteristic impulse is to catch a train to visit the scene of the mystery, to move with speed when the occasion warrants, even to apprehend the criminal himself, sometimes with whatever force is required. The other type, the true “armchair detective,” is illustrated by Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. Portly and indolent, sequestered in his study or club, Mycroft has an absolute aversion to physical action: his only tool is his mind. He begins a formula for characters of the same build and inclinations carried on in, for example, Nero Wolfe.
Don Isidro Parodi, as his name suggests, is in fact a parody, and particularly of this second kind of detective: he is...
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