Summary: The Detective and His Death

Categories: DeathRealism

A haunting and chilling story, Death and the Compass is arguably one of the most intriguing twisted tales in Part two of Ficciones. Ultimately, Borges uses classic structure of detective fiction, but certainly gives it a twist. Lonnrot is the perfect reasoner, who solves the mystery through pure reasoning and rationality. Like any other detective he uses clue to lead him in the next direction, what is shocking is the moment when things flip, and now Lonnrot is the hunted, not the hunter.

This duality in theme is greatly used by Borges in Death and the Compass. Through use of themes such as duality, and self-fulfilling prophecy, Borges creates a captivating tale about a detective who meets his match.

It’s not surprise that this is a classic Borges’ detective story which follows he searches for answers about the creepy death of Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky. When he reaches the scene of the Yarmolinsky’s death, he sees that it was a stabbing.

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The Yarmolinsky has also left behind some of his mystic books which Lonnrot decides to study. He also comes across a piece of paper that reads, “The first letter of the Name has been spoken” Then comes another murder, the late Daniel Simon Azevedo. Instead of a letter, there is writing in chalk above his dead body, “The second letter of the Name has been spoken.

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” When a third murder occurs, another message is placed above the body “The last of the letters of the Name has been spoken.” It seems like a mysterious chain of event, perpetrated by the same person. The trifecta of murders gives Lonnrot the idea that the murderer is part of the occult, who is going on a killing spree. Later on he receives another letter signed by 'Baruj Spinoza' saying there will not be a fourth crime, and the three previous crime scenes form an “equilateral triangle.” The letter even includes a map illustrating said triangle. However, Lonnrot isn’t very convinced, and he is certain there is going to be a forth murder. By using two compasses, and inductive reasoning and problem solving, he is determined to find out the location based on the past three murders. He ends up making his way at a strange house called Triste-le-Roy. This is where it gets messy. He enters, confronting Red Scharlach, asking him if he is looking for 'the Secret Name.' Scharlach explains he is looking for 'something more ephemeral and slippery, Erik Lonnrot.' Then proceeds to explaining why he wants him. Approximately three years ago, Lonnrot arrested Scharlach's brother. In the pursuit, Scharlach was shot and spent days near death, and sickness. He grew to hate his body and its symmetries. Now seeing the world as a labyrinth in which 'all roads lead to Rome,' he has created a labyrinth to trick Lonnrot. Azevedo tried to rob the Tetrarch but busted into Yarmolinsky's room and killed him to silence him. At the time of the killing Yarmolinsky had just written, 'The first letter of the Name has been spoken.' Scharlach ended up reading that Lonnrot was studying Yarmolinsky's Hebraic library for clues and also studied similar books. Then killed Azevedo and scattered mystical Jewish clues all around. He was well aware Lonnrot would know there had to be four crimes, because Tetragrammaton means the four letters of the name of God, the only four that can be written. Scharlach planned everything to bring in Lonnrot 'to the solitude of Triste-le-Roy.' He then shoots and kills Lonnrot.

When observing this short story in particular, I immediately notice that it is set up as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The acts, the first three murders, are the very acts that result in the fourth and final murder alone. But they mainly occur because Lonnrot dug so deep, he was sure there was going to be a fourth, leading it to occur. “The three sites were in fact equidistant. Symmetry in time (the third of December, the third of January, the third of February); symmetry in space as well . Of a sudden he sensed he was about to decipher the mystery. A set of calipers and a compass completed his sudden intuition. He smiled, pronounced the word 'Tetragrammaton' (of recent acquisition), and called the Commissioner on the telephone.” (Borges 5) This was the moment where Lonnrot himself is fulfilling his own prophecy. While we as readers know they are coincidences created by the murderer, Lonnrot suspects them to be very real for the fourth murder, which ends up being his own. This is also clearly magical realism, which invites the plot twist while keeping modern feelings and emotions included. “Nine days and nine nights I lay dying in this desolate, symmetrical villa; I was racked with fever, and the odious double-faced Janus who gazes toward the twilights of dusk and dawn terrorized my dreams and my waking. I learned to abominate my body, I came to feel that two eyes, two hands, two lungs are as monstrous as two faces.” (Borges 7) This shows how emotional and authentic Scharlach felt his pain and experience was. However, it also identifies that there is a magical component, which is including symmetry of the labyrinth.

Using different objects, Borges brings duality to life. “The compass is his guide and the directional point missing is south. The appointed day arrives, exactly one month after the third crime. Lonnrot sets out to foil the crime and finds instead that he is trapped in an unsuspected pattern. Misreading the clues by assuming four directional points, he finds the fourth point is actually equidistant from the last two crime scenes and he is the target. In true tragic fashion, Lonnrot is allowed his moment of realization before the bullet fells him. In the few moments before his death, he offers the criminal Scharlach an alternative for a more perfect crime in a linear pattern for the next time.” (Aguilar 17) The directional point missing south doesn’t seem to bother Lonnrot, although it is a sign that something isn’t right, something is missing from his plan. His tools mirror the experience he created expecting good results, when they were really bad for him. His excitement was followed by his failure, showing the increase in duality in this short story.

Borges has created Lonnrot as a detective that’s uses pure deductive reasoning in order to solve mystery. Through duality, magic realism, and the self-fulfilling prophecy, Borges creates a tale of unexpected suspense. It is currently relevant to understand the structure of detective stories, and then also add in magical realism. While the magical realism may not be directly related to our lives, we can use it as interpretation. For instance, it is quite relatable how in a chaotic world full of killers and clues, Lonnrot was just searching for answers, much like how we are in our own lives. We may not have labyrinths, but sometimes the varying obstacles we go through could personify symbolism of labyrinths. Sometimes what we think we want, isn’t what we thought it was. When I got to the plot twist at the end of the text, I couldn’t help but take that in. Sometimes we feel that we are certain about our choices, when we really might not even know what they are or what outcomes they yield. Even when explaining the duality of the compass, I thought about how in modern day, our phones are similar to us as the compass was for Lonnrot. He used this as his main tool which got him to the killer, but in the end, he was killed, making the compass a both good and bad tool. Just like how now, we can use phones to get where we need to be, but it might not always be right. .

Works Cited

  1. Aguilar, Julia. (2019). Borges and Chesterton: Theologians of the Detective Story.
  2. Borges, Jorge Luis. (1942). Death and the Compass: Ficciones.
Updated: Feb 16, 2024
Cite this page

Summary: The Detective and His Death. (2024, Feb 16). Retrieved from

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