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Blood on the Seine

books Updated: May 04, 2009 18:11 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Book: The Paris Enigma
Author: Pablo De Santis
Harper Collins l Rs 395 l pp 205

Crime scenes cannot get more dramatic than the discovery of a body at the base of the Eiffel Tower less than a month before its grand unveiling at the 1889 World Fair in Paris. Making this sudden death even grander is the identity of the victim: Louis Darbon, Paris’s most famous detective on a case to track people out to destroy France’s modern marvel of engineering, the Eiffel Tower.

Darbon also happened to be a member of the society of the world’s twelve best detectives gathered at the fair to showcase their skills to a world getting obsessed with machines and science. But when he gets killed, the challenge becomes too audacious to be ignored by the detecting dozen, now minus two, due to murder and sickness.

The narrator is young Sigmundo Salvatrio, the son of a cobbler who’s grown up on the staple of the exploits of legendary de-tectives. Rejecting his father’s soles and polishes for a magnifying glass, he starts off as the wide-eyed Dr Watson to Ar-gentina’s most famous sleuth Renato Craig.

When Craig re-tires sick under a cloud after solving his “Final Case”, he sends Salva-trio to Paris to take his place at the gathering. At first in awe of his her-oes, Salv-atrio is both surprised and disappointed to find that they spend less time discussing deduction and more time in madly competing with each other. This adds to the narrrative which Pablo De Santis peppers with tales of their celebrated cases. Each exploit becomes a complete story on its own even as it adds to Salv-atrio’s learning. “I’m drawn to investigation. Ever since I was a boy, when I read the adventures you detectives starred in, I dreamt of doing the same one day,” he tells them.

He gets his wish. Appropriated as an assistant by the Twelve’s lead detective Viktor Arzaky, Salvatrio quickly finds himself thrust in the middle of things. Much to the envy of other assistants, he soon finds himself investigating religious cults, meeting beautiful women, visiting dens of vice, and confronting passions that can drive men – and women – to take other people’s lives. Though as an assistant he is allowed only to be seen and not heard, Salvatrio blunders his way through solving a crime that befuddles the world’s best criminologists.

During his month-long stay in Paris, he almost finds love and is even marked out as the next victim by a serial killer out to challenge the biggest brains against crime. The killer’s identity, however, does not surprise; the motive does. And while several red herrings keep the reader guessing till the very end, what is truly unexpected is the final piece of evidence that nails the killer. For that, Salvatrio has to thank his cobbler heritage (No, this is not a spoiler. Even with the hint, it’s impossible to figure out how the killer is finally caught).

Journalist-turned-crime writer De Santis throws up dead bodies in the narrative with a regularity that keep the reader hooked even while the detectives and their acolytes indulge in didactic discussions on the philosophies of crime-solving and the role of assistants have to play in a case. Quite like Spain’s Arturo Perez Reverte, another former journalist, and the still more popular Dan Brown, De Santis weaves historical events into his narrative with an ease that has made bestsellers of Perez Reverte’s The Flanders Panel (La Tabla de Flandes), The Dumas Club (El Club Dumas) and Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

As a first in a series, The Paris Enigma may throw some readers off by the sheer number of characters, but I would suggest you hang on. Salvatrio promises a lot as the new detective on the block.