The Defeat of Sherlock Holmes

Alberto Manguel

In the summer of 1980, the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia told the editors of the Italian magazine L’Espresso that Jorge Luis Borges was passing through Rome and that he was going to have lunch with him. The editors asked Sciascia to interview Borges for the magazine. Sciascia refused. “I don’t know how to ask questions,” he said. Fortunately, their dialogue was recorded and was published a month after Borges’s death, in 1986.

The two men had, superficially, little in common except certain literary dislikes and a deeply rooted admiration for the methods of the classic detective story. Both were shy and hid their shyness behind aphoristic pronouncements, tempered by deliberate hesitations. Both had intransigent likes and dislikes in literature. Both enjoyed quiet conversations about books. Both were interested in metaphysics and the ethics of poetry. Both (during that lunch) condemned Croce for not understanding Dante. “Or Pirandello, or Manzoni, or Mallarmé,” Sciascia added. “But I would spare Croce’s style,” Borges answered. “Croce’s accent, Croce’s teaching, Croce’s tone and rhythm.” To this, Sciascia did not respond.

The most obvious, the most attractive, the most deceptive of all aspects of both their works is the enigma, the illusion of a detective mystery, but a mystery seen as in a dream, blurred around the edges, subtly breaking all the rules that govern this literary version of a harmless crossword puzzle. “Ah,” says the reader knowledgeable of Sherlock Holmes and his successors, picking up for the first time a Sciascia novel such as Il cavaliere e la morte or Una storia semplice, or a Borges story such as “Death and the Compass” or “Emma Zunz”: “a crime, a criminal, a policeman; I know how to proceed.” And confidently begins to turn the pages. But there’s something not quite right about the grid on which the game is supposed to be played. A key element is missing. The plot tightens—but around what? The characters lie and cheat, and uncover hidden clues—but pointing to whom? And when the end comes, the reader discovers that nothing is resolved, nothing reduced to a solution. As the narrator of Sciascia’s Todo Modo concludes: “You, me, the Inspector are potential suspects… The motive is what has to be found. The motive…” The detective stories of Borges and of Sciascia are told in such a way that the reader seeking to know why will always be disappointed.

It isn’t that the mystery, the puzzle, is lacking. Something lies hidden at the core of a Sciascia novel or a Borges story—a guilty secret, an evil deed, hidden and visible at the same time. Chesterton famously suggested that the best way to conceal a leaf was in a forest and a body in a battlefield; Poe, even more famously, proposed hiding a letter in a letter rack. For Sciascia, as for Borges too, nothing is more deceptive than what is evident, what suffers therefore of a certain vulgarity, exhibitionism or excess. A criminal death lies in the open, for inspection, like that of the diplomat in Sciascia’s Una storia semplice (A Simple Death) who dies at his desk, leaving for all to see a single phrase (“I have found,”) that allows both for the construction of an almost infinite-faceted reality to explain the crime, and for the invisible pinpoint of truth, buried in those words, that cannot be seen or said or understood. In Borges’s “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” the visible quest of the anonymous law student is told in simple episodes; the implicit, infinitely delayed conclusion is in the hands of the reader in his imposed role as metaphysical detective. Honourable deaths, on the other hand, demand coyness, restraint, an off-stage act like that of the dogs in Sciascia’s Il Cavaliere e la morte (The Knight and Death), which, the police deputy remembers, choose to go off and die in secret seclusion. In Borges’s “Streetcorner Man” or “The Shape of the Sword,” the almost neglected outcome is given in a final, laconic sentence.

Both writers found their key metaphor in a place that they mythologized: Borges in a legendary Buenos Aires of his invention, inhabited by hoodlums living in the low neighbourhoods of the South. For Sciascia, for whom power itself “is a criminal act,” Sicily is the incarnation (as he declared in La Sicilia come metafora, Sicily as Metaphor) of a Manichean universe in which one side cannot exist without its contrary. For Borges, the city of Buenos Aires was “a map of my disappointments and failures.” For Sciascia, Sicily was “the only autobiography I know.” Borges had written: “Let Heaven exist, though my own place may be in Hell.” Sciascia was more practical: “The Devil is necessary for holy water to be holy.” The Sicilian world divided between the Mafia and the police seeks not conventional resolution but an ongoing and fragile tension to maintain its own reality. It is a combat that can have no winners, because the antagonists exist only in relation to one another, just as murderer and detective are ultimately one another’s justification.

Emblematic of Sciascia’s world, and of that of Borges, is Dürer’s engraving “Knight, Death and the Devil,” from which Sciascia drew the reduced title (mentioned above) of one of his last novels—a title that might however have served for almost any of his books. Borges wrote two poems describing the engraving, and the image accompanied him throughout his life, hanging prominently on the wall of his bedroom in Buenos Aires. Dürer’s Knight rides between his two attending companions: Death, the immutable, the only certainty, the fixed point in time; and the Devil, the attachment to the world and to time, the constant reminder that our service on earth is one of delusion and betrayal. Death busies itself exclusively with the oxymoron of the present moment-to-be (the condition of our creation, according to Montaigne); the Devil relies on our memory to insist on all that is uncertain, on what we like to believe one day was and what may one day be.

In the second poem on the subject, Borges concludes that the Knight, “who exists not,” will ride on eternally, while Borges, who indeed exists, “set off later,” and will be the first to reach the point of encounter with Death and the Devil. Death (which, according to Sciascia, was an obligation, since it was set down in the penal code) competes with memory: one cannot survive the other. If Death demands a proof of allegiance, a gesture of elegance, then it must be at the cost of memory, of memory’s feeble attempts to keep reconstructing the world destined to ruins. “Memory,” meditates Sciascia’s anonymous policeman investigating an assassination that may or may not be political, “was to be abolished, Memory—and consequently all those mnemonic exercises that render it pliable, subtle, prehensile.” In a poem on Sherlock Holmes written in the year before his death, Borges noted that, until “a last day in which oblivion, that common goal, forget us absolutely,” the Master Detective will continue to be nothing but an echo or a form of something that vanishes daily, a fate common to all creatures. Therefore, to preserve the essential mystery of things, both for Sciascia and for Borges, Sherlock Holmes must always be defeated.

In the note appended to his short story collection, Il mare colore del vino, The Wine-Coloured Sea, Sciascia remarks that he had always carried on without looking to the right or the left (“and therefore looking both to the right and to the left”), with no hesitation, no doubts and no periods of crisis (“and therefore with much hesitation, many doubts and periods of profound crisis”). This ability to be in two seemingly contradictory states of mind and take two seemingly self-excluding paths, defines Sciascia’s literature. No doubt such simultaneity is impossible in a documentary approach to the world (and to the word); the detective story, however, demands such a double state, in which the truth tells lies and every action entails also its opposite. Between what must end and what must begin, between the puzzle of what really happened and the scandal that it happened at all, between the only certainty and the imaginatively remembered life, Sciascia, in the telling, gives us both choices. Like Borges, like Montaigne, whom both Sciascia and Borges admired, he “recites” us.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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