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Saturday, July 13, 2002


I had an unusual experience today. I read a book and I still don’t remember if I read it once before. It is
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie. Did I guess which character was the murderer when he was introduced half way through the book or did I vaguely remember from the last time I read it ? That is, is Christie more predictable or forgettable ? A tough one. Certainly she has nothing in common with a great writer like Jorge Luis Borges. One joke in the book caught my attention. A police investigator jokes that Hurcule Poirot is so smart that “I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, you solved the mystery of your own death… A nice idea no ? One could write a wonderful book about it”. Hmmm now that is a challenge. With my limited imagination I tried to think of the brilliant detective who knows he is going to be killed (but as usual can’t convince the police) knows that the killer will be one of, say, three enemies, and writes a simple procedure for deciding which of the three depending on how he is killed. That would almost do. Then I realised that someone with an unlimited imagination had already solved the problem.

Those who have not read “Death and the Compass” by Jorge Luis Borges should read it before reading on. Those who have should re-read it and not waste time on the web.

In this story, Borges writes of a brilliant detective “It is true that Erik Lonnrot failed to prevent the last murder, but that he foresaw it is indisputable.” Lonnrot is the victim of this murder, indeed the whole series of murders in the story was designed to lure him to the scene. He knows this but is so fascinated by the pattern that he goes anyway, thus solving the mystery of his own murder. Could it possibly be that Borges wrote this beautiful story to respond to a challenge in a novel by Agatha Christie ? I should note that he submitted it for possible publication in Ellery Queen’s mystery magazine (it was summarily rejected). More to the point, Borges is unpredictable and very memorable. As soon as the thought came to my mind, I realized that the novel and the story are, in some ways (excluding quality) very similar. Both concern a series of murders each associated with a letter (ABC and D in the ABC murders the name of god in Hebrew in “Death and the Compass”) and each associated with a different place (in the ABC murders a victim with a name beginning with A is killed in a town whose name begins with A and so forth, so victims and places follow the series A, B C and finally D). In each case the series is constructed so that investigators see the pattern and don’t think of the one murder which is important to the killer. ABC in the ABC murders refers to a train timetable in England which gives all stations alphabetically and lists connections to London (evidently in England all railroads lead to London). The phrase “all roads lead to Rome” appears in “Death and the Compass”. So I re-read “Death and the Compass” and noticed that I had not remembered everything. The last words of Lonnrot are
“A crime at A, then a second crime at B,…, then a third crime at C,…. Wait for me afterwards at D,…. Kill me at D…”
Case closed.

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