Borges' Detective Stories

The Streetcorner Man
When thinking of hard-boiled fiction, things like knife fights, deadbeats, and dames are often involved in some fashion or another. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Streetcorner Man” has all three elements, each one intertwined with the other. The story opens with an unknown man telling Borges about the night Francisco Real (better known as the Butcher) and Rosendo Juárez (a.k.a The Slasher) met at Julia’s dance hall, between the Gauna road and the river. The elements of hard-boiled fiction start to come into play when Francisco challenges Rosendo to a knife fight right in the middle of the dance hall. “Word’s going around there’s someone out in these lousy mudflats supposed to be pretty good with a knife . . . Maybe he can teach a nobody like me how a man with guts handles himself” (Giovanni, p. 36-37). Yet Rosendo’s challenge is met with deaf ears, Francisco does nothing to Rosendo and is humiliated in front of the entire crowd. What’s interesting to note in the next couple of sequences is the use of descriptive colors like yellow, red, and black. These particular colors often dominated the images on the cover of pulp magazines. What follows in the story is classic hard-boiled fiction, and Borges does it masterfully. To find out what happens, you’ll just have to read the story.
The Challenge
“The Challenge” is another one of Borges’ gritty, hard-boiled fiction stories involving beatniks committing horrendous acts. While “The Challenge” doesn’t follow the conventional rules of a mystery story, the mystery involves uncovering the man named Wenceslao Suárez and the legend that surround him. What separates the man from the myth though is one single instance in his life that might not have happened. Don Wenceslao is challenged to a friendly game of knife fight with a stranger that has kept him company for most of the day. It isn’t long before Wenceslao feels that the stranger is actually out to kill him. What Wenceslao does next is true hard-boiled fiction; he allows the stranger to slice his wrist so that his hand dangles loose. Wenceslao proceeds to tear his hand off, lay it bleeding on the ground and kill the stranger by slicing his belly open (p.142). The gruesomeness of this particular scene works in many of the ways that pulp art worked, creating images that containing lurid subject matter.

Death & The Compass
Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story contains all the elements of the classic pulp magazines, mystery, suspense, hard-boiled action mixed with despicable characters. Instead of providing a detailed summary of the story, let us look at the ways in which “Death & The Compass,” works in the same ways as pulp images do. Like pulp images, Borges gives us that “flash” of the story within the first paragraph of the story, “It is true that Lönnrot failed to prevent the last of the murders, but it is undeniable that he foresaw it” (Giovanni, p. 65). Pulp images worked because they told a story in a flash, and the “flash” that Borges provides lets the reader know half of the story. The trick of pulp images was to get the customer interested in the story with the cover, and then let him uncover the story by reading it, Borges uses this same technique. Much like the nightmarish images of pulp art, Borges views the city in “Death & The Compass” as, “a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which there are elements of Buenos Aires, deformed by the horror of the nightmare” (Bloom, p. 30). What is also worth noticing in “Death & The Compass,” is the constant mention of colors like, red, yellow, black, blue. These colors were the exclusive colors of the pulp artist to convey the intensity, horror, and gruesomeness found on many of the covers. To see a few examples of pulp art, click here.

Works Citied

Giovanni, Norman Thomas Di. “Streetcorner Man,” “The Challenge,” “Death and The Compass.” The Aleph and Other Stories: 1933-1969. New York: Ingram Merrill Foundation. PP. 33-42, 65-78, 139-143.

Bloom, Harold. “Carlos Fuentes on City and Fiction.”Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Jorge Luis Borges. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers. PP. 29-31.

Stewart, Doug. “Guys and Molls.”Smithsonian. Vol. 43, No. 5, PP. 54-59.

Lillis, Richard. A Straw for the Thirsty.1933. Online image. 18 October 2004. <>

“Doubling in Murder.” Online image. 18 October 2004.

“Walk Over My Grade.” Online image. 18 October 2004.

“Trail of the Octopus.” Online image. 18 October 2004.

“Medieval Murders.” Online image. 18 October 2004.

“Pulp Art Bars.” Online image. Site Bulder. 18 October 2004.