Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1158
In the short story "Death and the Compass," Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges presents an intricate murder mystery that is also a complex intellectual puzzle. In an unnamed and fictitious European city, three murders are committed at precise one-month intervals. All three victims are Jewish men, and in each instance a cryptic message is left with the corpse. Franz Treviranus, an inspector, offers quick, conventional explanations for the homicides, whereas Erik Lönnrot, an idiosyncratic detective who considers himself a “pure reasoner,” peers into the patterned aspects of the killings and suspects a far more sinister explanation for how they fit together.
The opening paragraph presents a conclusive but oblique précis for the mysterious happenings that are about to be presented. For readers encountering the story for the first time, however, its contents are indecipherable. After this, Borges begins his tale.
The first murder victim is Doctor Marcel Yarmolinsky, a Jewish scholar who is attending the Third Talmudic Congress at the Hôtel du Nord. He checks in on December 3 and is given a room opposite the Tetrarch of Galilee. He spreads out his books in the room and begins to study. In the late morning on December 4, he is found dead on the floor of his room with a deep knife wound in his chest. In his typewriter is a piece of paper inscribed with a sentence: “The first letter of the Name has been uttered.”
Treviranus suggests that a burglar attempting to steal the Tetrarch’s jewels entered Yarmolinsky’s room by mistake, but Lönnrot is not convinced by this “possible, but not interesting” explanation. He packages up Yarmolinsky’s books to take home to study. Lönnrot spends days studying the books. When he is interrupted by a journalist, he does not want to discuss the murder and instead speaks about his study of the names of God. The journalist publishes a story that reveals Lönnrot’s peculiar avenue of investigation.
The second murder takes place on January 3 in a drab suburb on the western edge of the city. A dead man is discovered propped up against the door of a paint shop. He too has a deep knife wound in the chest. On the diamond-patterned wall of the shop, a message is inscribed in chalk: “The second letter of the Name has been written.” The dead man is identified as Daniel Simon Azevedo, a thief, thug, and informer.
The third murder takes place on February 3 on the east side of the city at a tavern called the Liverpool House, which is run by a man named Black Finnegan. Before the third murder occurs, a man who identifies himself as Ginsberg calls Treviranus and says that, in exchange for payment, he will give information about the two “sacrifices.” Treviranus traces the call to the Liverpool House and learns that a man named Gryphius has most recently used the phone. When Treviranus reaches the tavern, Gryphius-Ginsberg has seemingly been abducted. According to witness accounts, two people in harlequin attire got out of a car, greeted Ginsberg, exchanged words with him in Yiddish, accompanied him up to his room, and then came back down with Ginsberg staggering between them. They drove off with him towards the harbor, where one of the harlequins scrawled a message on a pier shed: “The last letter of the Name has been uttered.”
Lönnrot arrives on the scene and immediately begins to study a book found in Gryphius-Ginsberg’s room. Treviranus and Lönnrot discuss the case as they walk away from the tavern. Treviranus suggests that the latest crime may be a...
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“mock rehearsal.” But Lönnrot places great significance in an underlined passage in the book, which states that “the Hebrew day begins at sundown and lasts until the following sundown.” Lönnrot also attends to one of the words Ginsberg used over the phone: “sacrifices.”
On March 1, Treviranus receives an envelope containing a map and a letter. The map marks the three murder sites and traces an equilateral triangle between them. The letter states that no fourth crime will be committed because the triangle perfectly traces a “mystic equilateral triangle.” Treviranus forwards the letter to Lönnrot. After Lönnrot has studied the map and the letter, he is confident that he has solved the mystery. With calipers and compass, he traces a fourth location on the map and pronounces to himself the word “Tetragrammaton.” Content that he has solved the case, he phones Treviranus and predicts that the culprits, who are planning a fourth murder, will soon be in jail.
Since north, west, and east points have been covered, Lönnrot heads south alone by train to what he has calculated by compass to be the last point: the abandoned Villa Triste-le-Roy. En route, he predicts that a prominent criminal named Red Scharlach is likely involved. As the sun sets, he explores the villa’s grounds and the interior, which are defined by a meticulous symmetry: each statue, stairway, and balustrade has its mirror image. As he arrives at an oriel whose panes are patterned in diamantine form, he is suddenly seized by two men, who take his pistol and bind his hands. Red Scharlach steps forward. When Lönnrot asks if Scharlach is looking for “the secret Name,” Scharlach replies that no, he is looking for “something more ephemeral… Erik Lönnrot.” Scharlach explains the machinations of his plot, which was driven by revenge.
Some time ago, Lönnrot arrested his brother and sent him to prison. In the same raid, Scharlach was badly wounded. In the painful disorientation of his recovery, he swore to subject Lönnrot to the same disorientation by trapping him in a labyrinthine plot. Scharlach explains that the plot began when the second victim, Daniel Azevedo, went to the Hötel du Nord attempting to steal the Tetrarch of Galilee's jewels, entered Yarmolinsky's room by mistake, and killed him. Yarmolinsky himself had just typed the words “The first letter of the Name has been written” on his typewriter. From this circumstance, Scharlach set up the rest of the mystery as an elaborate ruse to lure Lönnrot to Villa Triste-le-Roy and to his death. For the second clue, Scharlach killed Azevedo and placed his body to the west. For the third clue, he pretended to be Gryphius-Ginsberg and feigned that character’s death. Scharlach then sent the map and letter to Treviranus, knowing that Lönnrot would figure out the clues that he had planted and, tracing the proper rhombus, come to the villa.
Lönnrot, knowing that he is about to die, suggests an alternative labyrinth of clues that Scharlach can use “when in some other incarnation you hunt me.” The labyrinth consists of points arranged along a single line, simple but sufficient to confound “a mere detective.” Scharlach promises to use Lönnrot’s linear labyrinth the next time he kills him. Then he kills him.