A Portuguese Prank

‘One of the masked men struck a match, lit five candles in a bronze candelabra, picked it up, went over to a piece of furniture covered by a travelling rug, and lifted the rug.

‘I could not contain my shock and let out a cry of horror. There before me lay a dead man’s body.’


Because it was our last week in Portugal, I had to start The Mystery of the Síntra Road, especially since we were in Lisbon. Not only is the book set near that city, it was also the very first mystery novel to be written in Portuguese for the Portuguese—seventeen years before Sherlock Holmes poked his pipe into foggy London scandals.

Ramalho Ortigão e Eça de Queiroz
Eça de Queíroz (right) and Ramalho Ortígão (left)

In their preface to the third edition (1884), the two authors Eça de Queíroz and Ramalho Ortígão describe how it originated:

‘One summer evening fourteen years ago [1870], while sitting before our respective cups of coffee in a café in the Passeio Publico and slowly succumbing to the melancholy of Lisbon as it dozed off to a tearful pot-pourri of tunes from Verdi’s I Due Foscari, we made up our minds to do something and make a loud enough noise to wake the whole place up, with said noise taking the form of an extraordinary novel to be sent blaring out across the Baixa from the dizzy heights of the Diário de Notícias.’

This youthful act of literary vandalism was first published between 24 July and 27 September 1870s as a series of letters, apparently genuine, in Lisbon’s big daily newspaper. Allusions to real people and place names, the use of initials and asterisks to conceal ‘real names’ and fake indignant responses fostered the illusion of reality. Some readers believed the letters were genuine and I feel sympathetic towards them because as a teenager I was completely duped by Forgotten Silver. You see, in 1995 (six years before the premiere of The Lord of the Rings) Peter Jackson made a prank documentary about a forgotten New Zealand genius named Colin McKenzie—figure who never actually existed. The national media was in on the joke and promoted the documentary enthusiastically, interviewing Jackson about this extraordinary person. When the documentary aired on TVNZ in the primetime Sunday evening slot, half the country believed it, as this article recalls. I should mention, though, that my mother was convinced it was bullcrap five minutes in.

Peter Jackson yukking it up with fake footage

When The Mystery of the Síntra Road hit the streets, the detective novel was still pretty new. The genre had its beginnings in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, who breathed life into C. Auguste Dupin in 1841 with ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’. The popular French detective Monsieur Lecoq appeared in L’Affaire Lerouge in 1866. The first detective novel in English, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone was published in 1868, only two years earlier than The Mystery of the Síntra Road, with which it shares many features; they are both epistolary novels, narrated by a series of different characters and foreground opium.

Illustration from The Moonstone


It is sometimes hard to tell whether the authors of The Mystery of the Síntra Road, are taking the piss. It takes melodrama to frequently ridiculous extremes. The characters can hardly sit still for a moment; they’re too busy dying, gasping, biting their knuckles, fainting, issuing cool threats and striking anguished poses. When the detective-figure finds his first clue (a hair), for example, he launches into a very odd apostrophe:

‘So it was true! There you are! I’ve found you at last, poor little hair! I pity the innocent way you lie there, oblivious, careless, idle, languid! You may be cruel, you may be wicked, but you are not crafty or underhand. I have you within my grasp, within my line of sight; don’t run away, don’t tremble, don’t blush; you give yourself, you consent, you offer yourself up, O meek, gentle, trusting hair. And yet, albeit fragile, tiny, almost microscopic, you are part of the woman whom I had intuited, foreseen and whom I seek! Is she the author of the crime or completely blameless? Is she merely an accomplice? I don’t know, and you cannot tell me.’

Some people have described the book as a spoof and it is quite easy to imagine Derlock Holmes rolling about delivering this with a lisp.

Deduce You Say (12)
Still from ‘Deduce, You Say.’

Queíros later became celebrated for his Realist novels, to the point that Zola thought he was much better than Flaubert. His most famous books include O Crime de Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), O Primo Basilio (Cousin Basilio) and Os Maias (The Maias). In his preface to  Síntra, he expresses dignified regret for the sentimental excesses of his first novel:

‘We shall draw a discreet veil over its masked men of various statures, its mysterious doctors, its fair-haired English captains, its dangerous countesses, its tigers and elephants, its yachts on which are hoisted white linen and lace handkerchiefs like flags of fantasy, its sinister glasses of opium, its elegant corpses its romantic costumes and, finally, its horses spurred on by riders in pale-grey capes who disappear into he dust of incredible adventures as they gallop through Porcalhota and off into the distance!

‘All these things — though pleasant, invariably sincere and even, on occasions, moving — are displeasing to their now more mature creators, who long ago averted their gaze from the misty horizons of sentimentality in order to devote themselves to the patient, humble study of the stark realities of their own street.’