16 MARCH 2002, Page 45

Enigma . .

puzzle. . .


Michael Carlson

THE MISSING PIECE by Antoine Bello, translated by Helen Stevenson Serpent's Tail, £8.99, pp. 241, ISBN 1852426489

ne major tradition in murder mysteries has always been the intellectual puzzle, and intellectuals have often ducked into the genre to play puzzling games themselves. The latest is Antoine Bello, a Frenchman whose novel was runner-up for the prestigious Prix Novembre, and owes far more to the postmodern traditions of writers like Perec, Borges, Calvino and Julio Cortazar than to Simenon, Agatha Christie or Colin Dexter.

For Bello, the puzzle is literal and multilayered. The novel is a triptych, opening with a section titled 'The Enigma', which describes a series of murders of people connected with the JP Tour, America's professional speed jigsaw puzzle-solving competition. The killer takes a limb from each victim, leaving a Polaroid of the matching body part from an unidentified person. The main section, 'The Puzzle', contains 48 pieces, including newspaper reports, letters, and even a long article, 'In Praise of the Missing Piece', reviewing a book much like his own. In that book, and in this one, the 48th and final piece of the puzzle is missing.

If there is a weakness, it is in the uniformity of the prose. Bello, who claims to make his living providing a minute-taking service to French businesses, is able to inject humour dry enough to be English into the many minutes which form pieces of the puzzle. But that same tone is used for the supposed newspaper articles, television commentaries, and the many other narratives which form pieces of the puzzle. They begin to resemble pieces of the jigsaw which wins the competition for the world's most difficult, 'Pantone 138', designed by one Paul Rousselet, like Bello, a Frenchman. It consists of 1.000 half-inch squares, identically coloured in the shade of blue which is its title. Although any of the billions of ways of assembling the puzzle are identical, only one of them can be 'correct'. This is a fine conceit for puzzology, but less effective for prose. It doesn't help that although most of the extracts purport to be American, the translation is full of incongruous Anglicisms, instead of the obvious American alternatives.

The nature of the missing piece and the identity of the killer are revealed in the final section, The Solution', presented almost like minutes of a meeting between author and reader. While this denouement is unlikely to thrill hardened detective story addicts, it works within Bello's framework because of the way it plays against its own, and the reader's, cleverness.

Some might find this attitude a bit arch, as if the author were trumpeting his cleverness, but isn't that exactly what cosy puzzle story readers are searching for? Do we blame Holmes because Watson is so slow? By updating the puzzle to the world of the serial killer, and setting it within a completely self-referential world. Bello manages to both have his cake and deconstruct it.

In the end. Bello has produced more than an intellectual exercise. Indeed, The Missing Piece might finally be interpreted as ...