is a self-contained short story which forms the first part of
The Philosophical Detective.
Kirkus Reviews called The Philosophical Detective “…a suspenseful, pitch-perfect novel with an unlikely lead detective: a fictionalized version of iconic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)…. [T]he author’s fine-tuned intellect and vivid reimagining of Borges make for a thought-provoking and compelling read…. An intelligent, original detective novel.”
I hope you enjoy this preview!
Text copyright © 2014 by Bruce Hartman
Published by Swallow Tail Press
This story forms part one of
The Philosophical Detective: The True Story of an Imaginary Gentleman
Copyright 2014 by Bruce Hartman
All Rights Reserved
Not for sale or distribution outside the United States of America
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. I need hardly add that “Jorge Luis Borges” is a purely fictional product of my own imagination, not to be confused with the famous Argentine writer of the same name. I apologize in advance for taking these liberties with the reader’s expectations.
“Now, if merely to be present at a murder fastens on a man the character of an accomplice,—if barely to be a spectator involves us in one common guilt with the perpetrator; it follows of necessity, that, in these murders of the amphitheater, the hand which inflicts the fatal blow is not more deeply imbrued in blood than his who sits and looks on….”
Thomas De Quincey, “On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts” (quoting Lactantius)
I met Jorge Luis Borges soon after he arrived at Harvard to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1967. He was already an old man, enjoying belated renown as a poet, essayist and short story writer, though he had many more years to live. I was young, a first-year graduate student in Comparative Literature at Ipswich University, twenty miles north of Cambridge. Until then I had only vaguely heard of Borges. All I knew was that he came from Argentina and had been known to write reviews of nonexistent books; he was obsessed with labyrinths and—most unusual in a blind man—he had a deathly fear of mirrors. The circumstances of our first encounter couldn’t have been more mundane. One morning my faculty advisor, Cliff Jensen, asked me to drive to Cambridge and pick up Borges and his wife for a reception at the home of our department chairman, Howard Vaughan. Cliff was a great teacher and mentor, and like all his students I would have done anything he asked. He chose me because I spoke a little Spanish and had an old Ford Galaxie that would be perfect for transporting a pair of elderly strangers from a strange land.
Their apartment in Cambridge was smaller and shabbier than I’d expected. But surroundings meant nothing to Borges, since he was blind. He insisted on speaking English, ignoring his wife except for social formalities. He was tall and aristocratic, balding under a thin halo of gray hair. His gaze was abstract, otherworldly, often astonished, like the mirrors he abhorred. He wore a charcoal gray suit and a silk tie, and he carried an ivory-handled walking stick. His wife was short, cylindrical and humorless, as befits a Latin American matron of a certain age. In the car Borges spoke excitedly of H.P. Lovecraft, whom he apparently expected to meet in Ipswich. He thanked me for “rescuing” him from Harvard, where he’d been accused of spending too much time visiting other colleges and New England literary sites. I’d be seeing him again, he said—he’d agreed to conduct a seminar at Ipswich a few weeks later.
I parked in front of Howard Vaughan’s handsome colonial house and escorted the old couple inside at a pace that would have been excruciating for a snail. In the spacious entry hall, we were met by an obsequious posse of graduate students and junior faculty; there was a great deal of bowing and scraping, invisible to Borges and incomprehensible to his wife. Borges allowed no pictures to be taken, on this or any other occasion—he regarded photography as an abomination akin to mirrors. He spoke of his admiration for Lovecraft and made a few references to Emerson and Poe. Señora Borges spoke in phrases memorized from an archaic Berlitz guide. “How do you do?” she asked everyone. “Enchanted to have made your acquaintance.”
In the living room, a lively cocktail party was under way. Borges, propped on his walking stick, asked me not to leave his side. I guided the couple to a small sofa and introduced them to Cliff Jensen and one of my fellow graduate students, Marty Levin. Cliff, my advisor, was the most likeable man I’d ever known, with lank blond hair, bright blue eyes, and a smile as wide and open as the Midwestern sky. He hailed from Iowa, where friendliness and optimism are apparently grown by the bushel along with the corn. Marty was a New Yorker with a dark curly beard, and as thoughtful and generous a man as I’d ever known. He was a little older than me and had gone out of his way to show me the ropes when I arrived at the university. Marty was a specialist in fantastic literature and he seemed especially eager to meet Borges. We were soon joined by Howard’s ungainly seventeen-year-old daughter Clarissa, who looked and sounded like a boy.
“Cliff is the most accomplished scholar at the university,” I told Borges. “He’s read everything that’s ever been written.”
Borges muttered something about the inexhaustibility of literature and asked Cliff: “Then you are the head of the department?”
Cliff blushed in embarrassment. He’d been Howard’s loyal lieutenant for over twenty years—the only member of the department who could stand him—and Borges’s question must have sounded blasphemous. “That’ll never happen!” he laughed.
“Howard will never retire.” Cliff pointed toward a circle of sycophantic students near the fireplace. “Would you, if you were lord of all you surveyed?”
In the middle of the group stood Howard Vaughan—red-faced, white-bearded, ill-tempered and half-crocked—pontificating to his disciples. He’d studied at Oxford, written novels, poems and plays, lectured in Ireland on Joyce and Yeats, summered on Mallorca with Robert Graves, debated politics with Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt. But none of his attainments seemed to have done him any good. He was a liar, a cynic, a bully and a sexist (a word we didn’t yet have, but it would have fit him). Even as he brayed on about D. H. Lawrence he had his hands all over one of the female graduate students, Rachel O’Meara, who didn’t exactly leap away. After all, he was head of the department.
Rachel was the new excitement in our world, a long-stemmed Irish rose with ice-blue eyes and a lilting Sligo brogue. When she arrived from Ireland, Howard had asked me to pick her up at Logan Airport; I agreed but then foolishly inveigled a graduate student from Germany, Michael Koch, into taking my place. To my chagrin, Michael had Rachel in the sack almost before they made it back to Ipswich. Naturally I was envious—all the men in the department were envious—of the tall, athletic-looking Michael Koch, with his Germanic self-assurance and cheerful good looks. And I felt his pain, now that Rachel was rumored to be two-timing him with Howard Vaughan.
“Rachel and Howard have a history,” Cliff told Borges, “that goes back twenty years. Howard was teaching at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo and had a drunk driving accident, killing a couple of people including Rachel’s older brother. It was a nightmare—I had to go over there and deal with the police and the lawyers. They could have hanged him but he pulled some strings and got off with a huge fine. Rachel was just a child at the time. Years later, he went back to lecture in Dublin and met Rachel—”
He caught himself when he realized that Howard’s daughter was listening.
“Go ahead,” Clarissa said. “I’ve heard it all before.”
“Well,” Cliff hesitated, “without going into the details, he invited her to come here to study when she finished her degree.”
“And the first thing she did,” Marty grinned, “was hop in bed with Michael Koch.”
Clarissa rolled her eyes. “And the second?”
Rachel’s revived romantic interest in Howard seemed to be common knowledge, except to Michael Koch. He pushed his way into the circle and merrily tried to pry her away from Howard’s grip. “Come on, old man! Ha! You must learn to keep your hands to yourself!”
Howard’s wife, Margaret, seized this moment to swoop in and pluck his drink from his hand —“Now, Howard! You’ve had quite enough!”—but when she stepped away, he ordered Clarissa to fetch him another from the kitchen. Clarissa complied, though not without an obscene gesture, unnoticed by her father, followed by a conspiratorial smirk at Marty, who burst out laughing. Cliff and I laughed too, and Margaret silenced us with a withering scowl. Borges—whose wife whispered into his ear in Spanish—was not amused. Everyone knew Howard was an ass, but, like the New England weather, nobody did anything about him.
If anyone could handle Howard, it was Margaret. She was taller than he was and outweighed him by fifty pounds. She’d been a beauty in her day, people said, and you could still see a glimmer of it in her lively dark eyes when she smiled. But after twenty years of being walked on and cheated on by Howard, of covering up for Howard and apologizing for Howard, she’d been twisted (the same people said) into a dark mirror image of Howard at his worst. Clarissa was their only child.
When Clarissa returned with Howard’s drink, Margaret intercepted it and offered it to Señora Borges. “God damn it!” Howard exploded. “Can’t a man even get a drink in this country?” His eyes fixed on Cliff. “Jensen! Get me a drink! I don’t give a good goddam what Mother Superior says!”
Margaret glowered at Cliff. “Don’t you dare!”
I could feel Cliff wilting beside me.
“All right, then. Marty!”—Howard shook his finger at Marty, who moonlighted as Howard’s lackey when Cliff was unavailable—“You get me one! There’s a bottle of Johnny Black on the kitchen table.”
“Have you known Howard a long time?” I asked Borges.
“We were recently introduced,” he frowned. “Evidently by one of my enemies.”
Cliff flashed one of his famous smiles. “I hope you’re planning to come back for the seminar. The choice of topic is entirely up to you.”
“I’ve already selected a topic,” Borges said. “Inspired by one of my favorite writers, Thomas De Quincey.”
“His essay on opium addiction?”
“No. A different essay: ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.’”
A few days later Borges summoned me to his apartment. He greeted me warmly and explained why he’d asked me to come. Harvard University, he said, had dispatched a battalion of students, teaching assistants and would-be translators to pester him and keep him from leaving the campus. He felt trapped in his apartment and missed his old haunts in the back streets of Buenos Aires. I told him about a Portuguese coffee shop in Somerville where they served maté from southern Brazil and his face lit up with an almost childish delight. His wife, he said—she sat grimacing uncomfortably on the sofa—preferred to stay at home by herself. “And you and I have work to do,” he said, reaching for his walking stick. “We must prepare for our seminar.”
Borges loved the Iberian atmosphere of the coffee shop and he loved to talk. He talked about literature, philosophy, politics—each with a curiously archaic flavor, since his access to the written word had ceased when he lost his sight in the early 1950s. Inevitably the conversation came around to Howard Vaughan, whom Borges despised. Beyond merely disliking him—which was a common enough reaction—Borges viewed him as a monster and an affront to everything he held dear. “The man has read all the books,” Borges said, “even written a few, and yet he is a buffoon and a moral pygmy. How can that be? Is literature just a game, like playing cards, that can be played equally well by a scoundrel or a saint?”
“Howard is definitely something of a scoundrel,” I said, dodging the question.
“I take that personally, since he claims to have studied my work. Did he learn nothing from it?”
Borges’s indignation caught me by surprise. Admittedly I still hadn’t read any of his work, but I had the impression that it was rather cerebral and tended more toward the aesthetic than the moral. “Do you regard yourself as a moralist?” I asked him. “I thought—”
“My work is literary and aesthetic, and therefore profoundly moral in nature.”
I nodded uncomprehendingly.
“What is always omitted from a word or any other symbol?” He answered his own question: “The thing that the symbol refers to. For that reason art—though it concerns itself only with balance and order and symmetry—is always about justice and morality.”
I gestured to the waitress—a dark-haired beauty about my age—for a refill of my coffee and Borges’s maté. This beverage, which I had never seen before, is a kind of tea that is sipped through a metal straw from a cup made from a calabash gourd. The waitress winked at me as she poured more hot water into Borges’s cup. I assumed that she had overheard our conversation.
Borges stirred the metal straw around in his cup and went on: “If two brothers, starting on the day they were born, read all the same books in the same order, they would have the same ethics. In a moral sense they would be the same man. You or I, depending on the syllabus, might be Howard Vaughan. Cain might be Abel.”
“Those two didn’t turn out the same,” I observed.
“Regrettably they had no books. You’ll recall that their parents had just been driven from Paradise.”
On that note we began work on the syllabus for “our” seminar—somehow I’d been drafted into doing most of the work. We met every day for a week in that coffee shop in Somerville. I took notes and read aloud to Borges to refresh his recollection of important texts (which was mostly unnecessary: he could quote long passages verbatim from books he’d read forty years before). The topic, as he’d told Cliff Jensen, was “On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” based on the De Quincey essay. The syllabus included some classic texts—the Oresteia, passages from Dante, and of course Crime and Punishment, Hamlet and Othello. But our starting point, as he’d hinted, was just outside the Garden of Eden. “The first murder in literature is the story of Cain and Abel,” he told me that first day. “It’s the earliest murder mystery, and it’s a chilling one because it’s about a motiveless crime. No motive is necessary—we’re within living memory of Adam’s Fall. Imagine the horror Cain must have felt when he discovered the demon of evil for the first time— in his own heart. Today this strikes at our vanity as human beings. We insist on a motive. We don’t like to think of ourselves as naturally evil.”
He took a sip of his maté and went on: “And so in literature our murders must have strong, clear motives. Othello is driven by jealousy; Clytemnestra slaughters Agamemnon to avenge her daughter’s sacrifice. In modern times, when men are no longer ruled by destiny, we find a character like Raskolnikov, whose motive for killing is nothing more elevated than financial gain. To Aeschylus and Sophocles such a crime would not have been worth writing about, even if the killer had the noblest of self-delusions. But for us, psychology has replaced divine command; we believe in psychology in the same way the ancients believed in destiny. And we believe that it excuses our fascination with the meanest of crimes.”
Borges and I worked on our syllabus until there was nothing left to say on the subject of murder. It all seemed academic, just a literary exercise. I turned in the syllabus; the department posted notice of the seminar. A big turnout was expected.
And then Howard Vaughan was found dead in his home. He’d been stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife as he sat at his desk.
I telephoned Borges immediately with the news.
“The wife’s been arrested,” I told him. “Margaret. Apparently she caught him writing a love letter to Rachel O’Meara.”
“The Irish girl? I remember her voice: deep and musical. Does Margaret admit that she killed him?”
“No, of course not. She’s got a fancy lawyer and they’re denying everything. She claims she came home and found him dead.”
“And what did the letter say?”
“He’d started to address it to Rachel, didn’t even finish writing her name—”
“What? What did he write?”
“Just the first few letters: R-A-C-H-E.”
Borges hooted like a small boy enjoying a joke. “R-A-C-H-E? And on this basis they arrested the wife? Don’t the police in this country read Sherlock Holmes?”
The next morning brought balmy weather—a pleasant surprise in that harsh season—and Borges insisted that we sit outdoors, on a bench overlooking the Charles River. He seemed lost in thought. “If Howard Vaughan’s wife didn’t kill him,” he finally asked, turning to me with his glassy stare, “then who did? What was the motive?”
I had hoped we could talk about something other than the murder. On that subject I was the bearer of bad news from the department: under the circumstances, a discussion of “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts” would be in extremely poor taste. Borges’s seminar would have to be canceled.
“According to Margaret’s lawyer,” I stalled, “the motive was theft. Howard was editing an anthology of student writing and the manuscript had been sitting on his desk. Margaret says that when she found the body, the manuscript was gone.”
“What else was on the desk?”
“Just a couple of books. A poetry anthology—it was open to ‘The Waste Land.’ You know, T.S. Eliot.”
Borges nodded excitedly. “Rachel is Irish, of course. At the reception she was with a young German, I recall.”
“‘Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du?—Where do you linger, my Irish child?’ I’m sure you recognize that line from ‘The Waste Land?’”
“Sure,” I lied.
“It’s originally from Tristan und Isolde.” Borges turned his sightless eyes toward a rowing team that skittered over the river like an insect. “At the reception, I heard the story about Howard Vaughan killing Rachel’s brother in Ireland and then Rachel falling in love with the man who’d been sent to bring her to Ipswich. That’s more or less what happens in Tristan und Isolde. The reference could hardly be coincidental.”
“You think Rachel killed Howard?”
He ignored my question, jabbing his walking stick into the gravel in front of the bench. “What was this missing manuscript?”
“Just an anthology of student writing. It wasn’t worth anything.”
“Then who would kill for it?”
I felt a little sick when he said that. “There’s something you might as well know,” I said, “since everyone else does. Marty Levin—you met him at the party—submitted a story that was selected for the anthology. Afterwards he tried to withdraw it, and Howard wouldn’t let him. They got into an argument over it at one of our departmental meetings.”
“Why would Vaughan refuse to take the story out?”
“Howard was like that. He liked to lord it over people who were in his power. He tried that with me and when I resisted he threatened to throw me out of the program.”
“Didn’t you say there was another book on the desk?”
“Yes, a collection of stories by the German writer Hoffmann. Nobody knows what it was doing there.”
“‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry!’”
“I’ll wager that the collection includes a story called ‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry.’ It’s about an artist named Cardillac who crafts beautiful jewelry to sell to rich aristocrats and then murders them to retrieve his creations. You see, Cardillac is an artist and his works are his children. He can’t bear to part with them. Like your friend Marty Levin.”
“Marty wouldn’t kill anybody. And he didn’t even write that story. He sent it in as a prank.”
“That’s what he said. Cliff and I took Marty out for a beer and razzed him about the story after that argument with Howard. He got really upset and insisted he didn’t write it, but he refused to say who did, and he wouldn’t tell us what it was about. He said he was sworn to secrecy.”
“Obviously,” Borges smiled, “there’s more here than meets the eye.”
I stood up and helped him to his feet. “Listen,” I said, “I’ve got to tell you something. The seminar has been canceled.”
He snatched his hand away. “Nonsense!”
“No, really.” I steadied him on his walking stick. “Once there’s been a real homicide, you can’t go around talking about murder as one of the fine arts.”
“Of course you can! Literature is not a game.”
The seminar would never have taken place but for a twist of fate that no one—except possibly Borges himself—could have foreseen. Three days later Marty Levin fell, or was pushed, off the roof of his apartment building. The coroner ruled it suicide, but the Globe called for an investigation. Borges, who’d spent much of his life standing up to the dictator Perón, was not one to be trifled with. He threatened to hold a press conference and call for an international boycott of the university if he was denied the right to proceed with his seminar.
The department (thanks to Cliff Jensen, who was now acting chairman) quickly reversed itself and agreed to hold the seminar. Borges and I met one last time to discuss some additions to the syllabus—“A Study in Scarlet,” “The Waste Land,” Tristan und Isolde, and “Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” along with Macbeth and Richard III—and to review the latest developments in what he called “the case.” By this time Margaret had been released on bail, and her lawyer was pointing the finger at poor Marty Levin, who wasn’t around to defend himself. At a hearing shortly before Marty’s death—which Marty did not attend—the attorney had all but accused Marty of the murder. Margaret testified that she’d read the missing manuscript, including the story Marty had submitted: it was a Kafkaesque fantasy about a professor resembling Howard who torments the people around him in his careless, mean-spirited way until finally his victims have him arrested, tried and executed. Howard had been furious about the story, Margaret said, and that was why he refused to let Marty withdraw it from the anthology. Borges questioned me closely about the newspaper coverage, asking me several times if the police had found the manuscript in Marty’s apartment (they had not). I didn’t understand why Borges thought that was even a possibility. As I reminded him more than once, Marty told me he didn’t write the story. The notion that he’d killed Howard to retrieve it was absurd.
Borges had little to say on the drive up to Ipswich. We arrived at Hathorne Hall and proceeded to the auditorium at the pace of a Galapagos tortoise. Cliff had three chairs set up on the dais, one for Borges, one for himself and one for me in my new role as seeing eye dog. I parked Señora Borges in the first row, where she assured a steady stream of well-wishers that she was enchanted to have made their acquaintance. Then I guided Borges to his seat on the dais and stood behind him as an eager crowd pressed forward to greet him.
To everyone’s surprise, Margaret walked in with her daughter Clarissa, both of them wearing black. Margaret tried to prove her innocence by hugging the professors’ wives and repeating the testimony she’d given at her bail hearing. Clarissa looked out of place in a dress. She clung to her mother’s side, her eyes bloodshot, her complexion blotchy. As she stepped up to greet Borges she started to say something about Marty, but her mother cut her off—“Some people care more about the murderer than his victim,” Margaret said—and pulled her away, almost colliding with Rachel O’Meara and Michael Koch. Those two were an item again. Margaret seemed scandalized that her husband’s mistress had taken a new lover so quickly.
Cliff stood up and asked everyone to take their seats. When he called for a moment of silence in memory of Howard and Marty, many in the crowd bowed their heads; some crossed themselves or muttered a prayer. Margaret stared straight ahead. Clarissa hunched forward, her gaze averted, her hair dangling in front of her face. Rachel leaned on Michael’s shoulder with her eyes down.
Borges, of course, saw none of this. He sat motionless, one hand on his walking stick, his glassy eyes rolled toward the ceiling, as the moment of silence passed and Cliff introduced him to thunderous applause. Then he smiled a shy, astonished smile and silenced the crowd with a flick of the wrist. “My sincere thanks to Professor Jensen,” he began in a tentative voice, “and to all of you, for your kind hospitality, and for coming here today”—his voice faltered, as if he couldn’t remember what he intended to say—“to listen to a blind old man who may be able to cast some light on a difficult subject; a subject which may be perceived as tasteless under the circumstances, for which I apologize.”
He smiled again and went on. “My topic today is ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.’ That, of course, is the title of an essay by Thomas De Quincey, published in 1827. I greatly admire De Quincey as a stylist, but I’m afraid his essay does not deliver what it promises. It does not tell us how to think about murder as one of the fine arts. If you were determined to commit a murder in the most artistic fashion possible, it would give you little guidance. And so today I’d like to speculate on what De Quincey might have said if he had stuck to his topic.
“You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I use some literary illustrations. But let me be clear: Though my focus is aesthetic, I’m not speaking of murder as represented in literature or art. I mean the crime of murder itself. Such as—to take a recent instance—the murder of Professor Howard Vaughan.”
A murmur ran through the room, but Borges ignored it. “First a few general principles. For a murder to be worthy of consideration as a work of art, it must be deliberate and premeditated, and the killer must be cold-blooded, calculating, and intent on evading punishment. A killer who aspires to the lofty status of artist must know that he is committing a heinous crime—he cannot act under color of law or authority—and he must use all the resources at his disposal to avoid detection and punishment. This will include ruthlessly casting suspicion on others. And even a murderer who meets these standards will be disqualified if he is a professional killer. For murder to be considered as one of the fine arts, it must be free of any commercial taint. With apologies to Raskolnikov, I would extend this prohibition to amateurs motivated by financial gain.
“This brings us to the question of motive. Murder may be committed for a variety of reasons, among them jealousy, spite, revenge, ambition, self-protection, the protection of others, a desire for justice and of course—probably the most common motive—financial gain. We have already dismissed financial gain. Jealousy, spite and revenge are also unworthy motives for an artist, as they are for a human being. So what are we left with? Self-protection, the protection of others, and the quest for justice. It is here that the aesthetic and moral universes intersect, as they inevitably must. I lay it down as axiomatic that for a murder to be taken seriously as a work of art, it must be morally justified in the mind of the person who commits it. Although the murderer cannot act under color of law, he must act under a claim of right.”
Borges paused to allow his axiom to be appreciated. “Does anyone disagree?” Some people nodded, others grinned; no one spoke up. His manner was kindly but not so kindly as to invite disagreement, which, it was clear, he would not tolerate.
“Now,” he said, “with these principles in mind, how does the murderer approach the task before him? The epitome of success is not to be caught and punished, but the murderer cannot attain this goal by making it appear that no crime has been committed. Artistically, that would be no success at all. It would be like a landscape painter pointing out the window instead of painting a picture. A work of art requires, at least potentially, some act of aesthetic contemplation by a person other than the artist. There must be an audience.
“In theory this may be an audience of one, consisting only of the victim. Poe’s ‘A Cask of Amontillado’ comes to mind. But if the motive is justice, and not merely a private agenda of spite or revenge, then the crime should be visible beyond the killer and his victim. Justice is never a private affair. If justice is to be served, there must be others who become aware of the murder and the retribution it brings. And there must be at least one other person who learns about the crime, who sees the punishment that has been meted out and wonders what transgression could have justified it. That person is the detective.
“And so in this sense—this aesthetic sense that we are applying to the crime of murder—the detective is as necessary as the killer himself. He is responsible for the crime in the same way that a writer is responsible for his own precursors. How can this be? How can the detective be responsible for a crime that occurred before he’d ever heard of the killer or the victim? In destiny, events are connected like points on a sphere. The fallacy that time always runs in one direction—that Zeno’s arrow must reach its target, that Achilles must eventually outrace the tortoise—has been refuted by thinkers too numerous to mention. And so the detective, when his ingenuity has been challenged, becomes responsible for the crime he is called upon to solve. It falls to him to close the circle of justice.
“This puts a great burden on the detective. For just as the murderer cannot be a professional, neither can the detective. He certainly cannot be a policeman. A policeman is like the guard in an art museum, who spends his days surrounded by masterpieces but has no appreciation for art, focusing on outward appearances with no awareness of the ideals of balance, order and symmetry that lie beneath the surface. No, when murder must be considered as one of the fine arts, the ideal detective is not a professional but a talented amateur. He is (if I may say so) someone like me.”
Borges stopped talking and faced the audience with his glassy stare for what seemed an eternity. People started clapping, and a few stood up, thinking the lecture was over. Cliff rose and announced, “Let’s take a fifteen minute break.”
I led Borges off the dais to join his wife, who was entertaining the faculty with phrases from her Berlitz guide. Not to be outdone, the professors barraged Borges with stilted phrases of their own, which he brushed aside, interrogating them instead about their familiarity with H.P. Lovecraft and Miskatonic University.
“Miskatonic was actually… a fictitious university,” Cliff explained. “Lovecraft just made it up.”
Borges glared skeptically in Cliff’s direction. “I doubt that very much.”
Everyone laughed and Borges used that as an excuse to slip away. He grasped my wrist and toddled toward the refreshment table, where some of the graduate students were debating the merits of what we later called postmodernism. “Very clever idea,” Michael Koch said, “that the detective is somehow responsible for the crime. But is it realistic? Or just a literary artifice?”
“Realistic,” Borges said, “and therefore an artifice.”
“I still prefer realism,” Michael persisted.
“Do you prefer the realism of Cervantes, Henry James, or Franz Kafka?”
Before Michael could answer, he was elbowed aside by Clarissa Vaughan, who pressed in close to Borges and squeezed his hand. “Do you know who killed my father?” she asked in a low voice.
“I have some ideas,” he smiled, leaning closer. “Perhaps you can help me. That story Marty Levin submitted for the anthology—you read it, didn’t you?”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “Yeah, it sat on my Dad’s desk for a long time.”
“Did you write it?”
“Are you kidding? I could hardly stand to read it.”
“Too brutal? Too unnerving?”
“Too stupid. It was like some surrealistic murder trial from a hundred years ago, with the lawyers wearing powdered wigs and all that. The defendant was a professor, the witnesses were everybody he’d ever abused—students, faculty, even his wife—and at the end the judge sentences him to be hanged.”
Borges paused. “Did you ever talk to Marty about the story?”
“Sort of. When he called me.”
“He called you? Was that after your father was killed?”
“Yeah. He asked me if I’d read the story. I said no but I guess he could tell I was lying.” She blushed. “We were pretty good friends.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me not to tell anyone. Even my mother.”
“He said he didn’t write the story and he had to talk to me. We were supposed to meet in the library but he never showed up. Then I found out he was dead.”
“Did he kill himself?”
She shook her head. “Whoever killed my father killed Marty.”
Borges reached out to touch her arm. “Just one more fact. When Marty called you, was that before or after your mother was arrested?”
“After. But she was out on bail by then.”
A lean, balding man in a cheap brown suit touched my elbow. It was two in the afternoon and he was badly in need of a shave. “Excuse me,” he said warily. “My name is Mike Petro. I need to have a word with Mr. Borges.” He held up a badge that identified him as an Essex County police detective.
I pulled Borges aside and introduced him to Mr. Petro. They conferred in hushed tones for a few minutes before the man drifted away and took a seat in the back of the room. Borges seemed enchanted to have made the acquaintance of a real detective.
Back on the dais, he waited until absolute silence had been restored. “Now that we’ve established some general principles, I propose to apply them to an actual case: the recent murder of Professor Howard Vaughan. This may seem tasteless, but my personal honor is at stake.” A note of indignation sharpened his voice. “I believe it was my topic for this seminar, and my syllabus, that led to Professor Vaughan’s death in the particular way it occurred. Naively, I chose De Quincey’s essay and certain classic texts for what I thought would be an academic discussion. But in the killer’s mind the crime had been conceived; malice aforethought lay curled up by the door like Cain’s demon, waiting to be prodded into action. And the precise shape taken by the professor’s murder—its conception and execution as a work of art—was inspired by my topic and my syllabus, for which I will never forgive myself.”
He frowned with an expression that was at once remorseful and severe. “After learning of the crime, I issued a revised syllabus including the literary clues that baffled the police. Every one of those clues had been intended for me. The letters ‘R-A-C-H-E’—taken straight from Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’—were scrawled by the murderer, not by the victim. They told me that this was a crime to be judged by the aesthetic principles I planned to discuss at this seminar—and that I’d been chosen as the detective who must solve the crime.
“A blind detective? Is this a cruel joke? Perhaps; but my status was confirmed by the poem left open on Professor Vaughan’s desk: T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ in which the most important personage is Tiresias, the blind soothsayer who revealed the crimes of Oedipus. He sees all, he foresuffers all; it is said that the gods gave him the gift of prophecy in compensation for his blindness. I have received no such compensation. And yet, unexpectedly, I find that I can see more clearly than others, past the accidents of everyday life to the Platonic forms that underlie them. I’ve accepted the role of detective with confidence. I’ll never see the murderer’s face, but I know something more important, something that goes beyond mere appearances: I know what books he has read.”
Borges raised his palms in a pantomime of self-doubt. “Did I say ‘he’? I must use a pronoun because I’m speaking English, not Spanish; I should have said ‘he or she.’ In fact a reading of ‘The Waste Land’ points strongly to a woman, Rachel O’Meara, as the prime suspect. Many years ago, when Rachel was a teenager in Sligo, Professor Vaughan caused her brother’s death in a drunken accident. Later he returned to Ireland, where they had a love affair; he invited her here to complete her studies. When she arrived she first took up with a German graduate student named Michael Koch. Then about a month ago she renewed the affair with Professor Vaughan. Before long—but not before his wife had become insanely jealous—Professor Vaughan was found slumped over his desk with ‘The Waste Land’ opened to the very passage where Eliot quotes from Tristan und Isolde. Could anyone doubt that Rachel is Isolde, the wild Irish maid who consecrated her life to avenging her brother’s death? She left her signature, and declared her purpose, in the ingenious quotation from Conan Doyle: the letters ‘R-A-C-H-E,’ which might be either the beginning of her name or the German word for revenge.”
Half the audience twisted in their seats to stare at Rachel, the other half to avoid staring at her. She looked pale and desperate, mad with love and grief like the original Isolde. “Does that settle it, then?” Borges asked, his voice rising. “What about Michael Koch, the German student who must have hated Howard for taking Rachel away from him? Couldn’t ‘R-A-C-H-E’ point to a German bent on revenge?”
Now all eyes—including Rachel’s—were on Michael, who turned away with a bitter smile. “And there’s another suspect,” Borges pressed on, “though again it may seem tasteless to name him: Marty Levin. He submitted a story for Professor Vaughan’s anthology and then tried to withdraw it. The professor refused, and on his desk lay the story of Cardillac, who killed in order to retrieve his artistic creations. Marty, like Cardillac, could not bear to part with his work—did he take drastic steps to get it back?” Clarissa squinted at Borges with a crazed expression, as if she’d taken his metaphors literally and blamed him for her father’s death, and possibly for Marty’s.
“So that’s all we have—‘The Waste Land,’ ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ Tristan und Isolde, ‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry’—a jumble of literary evidence that incriminates an assortment of people who all had their reasons for killing Howard Vaughan.”
Borges thumped his walking stick on the floor. “I could not ignore the challenge implied by these clues which had been planted solely for my benefit, daring me, defying me, to solve the crime.” He waved an accusing finger toward the crowd and addressed the murderer: “I know you, hypocrite lecteur! You are cold-blooded, calculating, and intent on evading punishment by casting suspicion on others! You are an artist!”
He leaned forward, gathering the entire room into his oracular gaze. “You recorded your fantasy of killing Howard Vaughan in the missing manuscript—yes, you wrote the story submitted by Marty Levin—and yet it was still just a fantasy, awaiting inspiration to transform it into art. When Rachel O’Meara arrived from Ireland, still mourning her dead brother, and fell in love with the man who’d been sent to bring her from the airport, the resemblance to the legend of Tristan and Isolde was almost too powerful to resist. And then when Rachel resumed her affair with Professor Vaughan and the topic of this seminar was announced, you saw the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to commit a murder worthy of consideration among the fine arts, a murder as aesthetically satisfying as it was brutal and vindictive. You had read all the books on the syllabus, and many more. There would never be another moment like this, never a moment when so many archetypes—or so many suspects—could be called into action.
“With small effort you could plant enough evidence to implicate Rachel O’Meara and Michael Koch if anyone with sufficient discernment cared to investigate (and you knew I would be the detective). The manuscript could disappear as long as an alternative explanation surfaced—the tale of Cardillac—to incriminate Marty Levin and explain why he needed to retrieve it. Marty knew who wrote that story, so he knew who the killer was. Perhaps he confronted you; perhaps you hunted him down. In either case, he had to die.”
Borges settled back in his chair and reverted to his benign, self-deprecating smile. “False clues point to false conclusions,” he said, “directing us away from the real killer to other suspects. You made a classic mistake—you planted a clue against every suspect except yourself. That’s how I knew where to look: at the person against whom there was no evidence. At the dog that didn’t bark.”
He chuckled at his own joke and went on: “Perhaps I should put it differently: we should look at the person against whom there is no credible evidence. Ludicrous, obviously planted evidence, such as clues out of Conan Doyle, may serve to distract us from a person’s actual guilt. For example, Margaret Vaughan has done an excellent job of deflecting attention to Marty Levin, who died just after she was released from jail. And what of the daughter, Clarissa? Either one of them could have written that story and asked Marty to submit it for the purpose of torturing Professor Vaughan. And there’s no evidence whatever against Clarissa.”
Clarissa and Margaret glared back at Borges with murder in their eyes. “As always we must return to the question of motive,” he went on heedlessly. “There’s something missing from the clues you left at the scene of the crime. You left ‘The Waste Land’ but not Macbeth; Tristan und Isolde but not Richard III or Othello. The motive that’s missing is the one that accounts for the murder of Howard Vaughan—ambition. Or perhaps I should say, thwarted ambition distorted by spite. But there’s more to it than that. For a murder to be taken seriously as a work of art, as we have seen, the murderer must regard himself as an instrument of justice. If he does not—if his motive, like Macbeth’s, is blind ambition—he will trip over the demon lurking by the door and find himself groping in the darkness to wipe the blood from his hands. Even Iago thought he had justice on his side.
“And so when I look for the murderer of Howard Vaughan, I look for a man—yes, it is a man—consumed by ambition, nursing decades of grievances and convinced that he is an instrument of justice. He has read all the books—too many books, as it seems. He is judged superior by his peers. He should have been the chairman of the department. Yet instead he’s lived the life of a lackey, scorned, laughed at, humiliated on a daily basis by Howard Vaughan.”
Beside me on the dais I could hear rustling papers, labored breathing, the scooting of a chair leg. As I turned I saw Cliff Jensen lurch to his feet, clutching his papers as he hurried out the door. His footsteps receded down the hall.
The room echoed with a mortuary silence. “What I just heard,” Borges said, “and you just witnessed, was Professor Jensen’s confession.”
There were a few gasps, some whispering, some muted objections, before the silence settled again. Detective Petro eased out of his seat and slipped through the door. Borges sat motionless, like a conductor waiting to raise his baton.
“Please go on,” Rachel moaned.
“Mr. Jensen is undoubtedly the murderer, as I’m sure the police will be able to confirm. At this moment, alerted by the detective who just left the auditorium, they are waiting at his home with a search warrant. Without much effort they will find the missing manuscript, with its fantasy of Howard Vaughan’s trial and execution, written by Mr. Jensen and submitted, as a prank, by the unfortunate Marty Levin, who trusted his advisor and would have done anything for him. It’s obviously based on the legal proceedings against Professor Vaughan in Ireland, with its lawyers in powdered wigs—Mr. Jensen was there and the imagery must have stuck in his mind; he even told me that Professor Vaughan could have been hanged, which I’m sure was an exaggeration. Since Mr. Jensen is proud of his work as a murderer and believes it was morally justified, he will confess and avoid the necessity of a trial.”
“But why?” Margaret cried out. “Why would Cliff want to kill Howard?”
“The motive will not be hard to establish,” Borges smiled. “With all due respect, Professor Vaughan seems to have been hated by everyone who knew him. He was an exploitative, untrustworthy, mean-spirited drunk. There’s probably no one here who never experienced the occasional desire to do him in.”
Margaret burst into tears and had to be escorted from the room by Clarissa. Rachel and Michael and the others sat frozen in their seats, anxious to learn how they would fare in the judgment the old soothsayer was rendering. I felt a twinge of guilt when I remembered how much I’d hated Howard. Had I ever actually wished him dead?
“I suspected Mr. Jensen from the beginning,” Borges went on, “on literary grounds, as I have explained. But I understood that such evidence is not enough to support a search warrant, let alone a conviction; and so I turned my attention to the missing manuscript. The killer had to be the one who wrote that story, but that could have been Marty or Margaret or Clarissa or even the young man sitting beside me”—he meant me—“and it wasn’t until today, when Clarissa described the actual content of the story, that I could positively identify it as having been written by Mr. Jensen.
“I acknowledge my own complicity. My seminar topic floated the idea of murder as one of the fine arts; my syllabus lighted the path from motive to action; and my availability as the detective proved too great a temptation. Yet the actual killing of Howard Vaughan—which now seems pre-ordained, like Zeno’s arrow finally hitting its target—could only have been carried out by Professor Jensen. It was his destiny to commit that crime.”
Everyone in the room breathed an inner sigh of relief: the murder was Jensen’s doing, not ours. But Borges would not let us off so easily. “We must all certainly deplore what Professor Jensen did. Yet we should bear in mind that the difference between Mr. Jensen and ourselves—and I mean every man and woman in this room, excluding, of course, my wife—is more a difference of literary genealogy than moral culpability.”
He cast his kindly, imperious gaze over the crowd—like many gifted speakers, he had the knack of appearing to speak directly to each member of the audience—and then rolled his sightless eyes toward me. “If you had read the same books as Professor Jensen, in the same order, you would probably be as guilty as he is. And it might very well be you who just ran fleeing from the room.”
I hope you enjoyed “Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts.” This story is the first part of a novel entitled The Philosophical Detective, which continues the adventures of the blind poet and his guide. They are called upon to address an extraordinary series of crimes and the equally baffling conundrums of literature and philosophy, including Zeno’s paradoxes, the mind/body problem, and the mysteries of destiny, personal identity and artistic creation. The narrator, Nick Martin, plays the parts of Watson, Sancho Panza, Dante and Stephen Daedalus, and before the story ends he hears the last tale of Scheherazade and finds the love of his life. Forty-five years later, struggling with pain and grief, he looks back with wonder at the magical year when he wandered into the labyrinth and took his first steps to self-understanding. Lighthearted but deeply serious, The Philosophical Detective is a unique journey into the visionary world of a genius.
The Philosophical Detective is available as a paperback from certain online outlets and at many book stores. More information can be found on my website, brucehartmanbooks.com.
Kirkus Reviews called The Philosophical Detective “…a suspenseful, pitch-perfect novel…. An intelligent, original detective novel.”
Bruce Hartman lives with his wife in Philadelphia. His previous books include The Rules of Dreaming (published by Swallow Tail Press in 2013), The Muse of Violence (2013), and Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead (Salvo Press, 2008). You can read more on his website and blog, brucehartmanbooks.com.
Kirkus Reviews awarded The Rules of Dreaming its Kirkus Star for Books of Exceptional Merit and selected it as one of the “Top 100 Indie Books of 2013.” Kirkus called the book, “A mind-bending marriage of ambitious literary theory and classic murder mystery… An exciting, original take on the literary mystery genre.”
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
The cover art is a detail from William Blake, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, in the Tate Gallery, London. The fleeing figure is Cain.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967. Nick Martin has just started graduate school when he’s dragooned into serving as the driver, guide and confidant of a blind poet by the name of Jorge Luis Borges. Together they must address an extraordinary series of crimes and the equally baffling conundrums of literature and philosophy—including Zeno’s paradoxes, the mind/body problem, and the mysteries of destiny, personal identity and artistic creation—with Nick playing the parts of Watson, Sancho Panza, Dante and Stephen Daedalus. Their first adventure, MURDER CONSIDERED AS ONE OF THE FINE ARTS, involves a murder in Nick’s own Comparative Literature department and features Borges solving the crime based on Thomas De Quincey’s essay of the same name. This story serves as introduction to THE PHILOSOPHICAL DETECTIVE, a lighthearted but deeply serious journey into the visionary world of a genius. Kirkus Reviews called THE PHILOSOPHICAL DETECTIVE “...a suspenseful, pitch-perfect novel with an unlikely lead detective with an unlikely lead detective: a fictionalized version of iconic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)..... An intelligent, original detective novel.”