Secret Morphology and a Vicious Series:
Shape and Pattern in Borges
Ford Maddox Ford famously thought that an author should open with “the note that suggests the whole book.” In the short story “Death and the Compass,” Borges’ third sentence accomplishes this: “But he did divine,” he writes of his detective-protagonist Erik Lönnrot, “the secret morphology of the vicious series.” Indeed, fixation on shape and form, pattern and symmetry – for conformation – is fundamental to Borges’ story.
This is not surprising: After all, the equidistant triangle that connects the locations of the three enigmatic crimes on the city map is “the key” that solves the mystery. But even in less ...view middle of the document...
When Lönnrot finds a cryptic message in the dead rabbi’s room that links to a collection of works on Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, particularly the theory that God’s four-letter name, the Tetragrammaton, is the key to “ the immediate knowledge of everything that will exist, exists, and has existed in the universe,” Lönnrot is intrigued. And the best part? This “superstition” is one that seeks to impose systematic, numerical letter patterns over everything: Nothing could be more attractive to Lönnrot. When another murder victim is found, Lönnrot is convinced: He has found, as Sherlock Holmes puts it in “The Musgrave Ritual,” the “common thread upon which [this extraordinary sequence of events] might hang.”
In one scene towards the end, Lönnrot looks through a window. The glass is composed of multicolored, geometric shapes, so that Lönnrot’s view of the outside world is of “trees and the sky divided into rhombs of turbid yellow, green, and red.” With this remarkable metonym, Borges engages in what Peter Brooks calls an “acting out of the implications of metaphor.” Because this is exactly how Lönnrot sees everything – as shaped by geometrics.
But this weltanschauung is restricting: shapes and theories are inherently bound and enclosed; the are constricting. And with more brilliant metonymy, Borges acts this implication out.
Confident that he has “deciphered the mystery” and discovered (through geometric shapes) that there will be another murder, Lönnrot heads to the old villa of Triste-le-Roy. Of course, he perceives “symmetries,” “repetitions,” and patterns everywhere: There are two statues of Diana; two balcony’s; two stone steps that open onto a double balcony; a “two-faced” statue of Hermes – it goes on and on.
But it is also overwhelming; the house is large and convoluted, filled with “circular antechambers”: it is easy to get lost. Lönnrot wanders through countless antechambers and galleries that open onto “duplicate” patios, sometimes “upon the same patio.” He becomes frustrated. He wanders in circles; quickly, he grows “weary.” The house appears to be “infinite and growing” around him. The detective tries to steel his nerves: “The house is not this large,” he tells himself – its only the “symmetry….” But he is not calmed. Lonnrot’s beloved patterns and matrixes have literally trapped him in a maze, a “labyrinth, from which it is impossible to flee.”
And he doesn’t flee. In the observatory room Lönnrot is tackled and manacled by the henchmen of Red Sharlach, sworn enemy of Lönnrot. Sharlach takes Lönnrot’s gun and explains: He orchestrated everything – the murders, the kabbalah clues Lönnrot so carefully pieced together, the map – it was all part of a plot to lead Lönnrot to the villa, where Sharlach would exact revenge.
Detective fiction is all about surprise; the best works of the genre keep the reader constantly guessing as the narrative progresses to a shocking finale, when the detective reveals how he solved the case. But this...