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Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

The Castafiore Emerald is famous as an example of Hergé playing with the reader’s expectations of a Tintin book. It’s essentially an exercise in creating suspense out of nothing, with the mystery of the eponymous jewel ultimately turning out to be a rather mundane affair, and instead allowing for all sorts of hilariously mundane hijinks to befall Hergé’s cast with relatively little point to it all. Then, after all, this is fiction, as Tintin seems coyly aware of on the cover, staring our at us with his finger on his lips, smiling like he knows something none of his castmates do. If you can embrace the central pointlessness of it all, and enjoy it as a collection of wryly observed scenes, The Castafiore Emerald is another rewarding addition to a series growing gradually more experimental.

That engagement's news to Haddock!

There are times when The Casafiore Emerald feels like it’s being just a bit too smart for its own good, as if it’s being just a little bit too cheeky in playing out a mystery without a solution. The story ends, after all, with Haddock’s escaped parrot breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. “Blistering barnacles, that’s the end!” In fairness, reading the collection in order for the first time in years, one can sense Hergé’s desire to try new things and push the series in bold and exciting new directions. I respect and appreciate that, especially given how long the author worked with the character, I think he certainly has the right to toy with the concept.

So while there are entries in the series that feel distinct from others – Tintin in Tibet, for example, felt far more intimate than what came before, while Destination: Moon didn’t necessarily feel like a linear story – The Castafiore Emerald is the first instalment that feels experimental, as if Hergé is consciously attempting something new rather than simply writing something that happens to be a bit different from what came before. Seen from that angle, I can appreciate it, but I can understand why The Castafiore Emerald might feel like a bit much for some people.

Night entertainment...

The Castafiore Emerald essentially sees Hergé lining up a variety of Checkov’s Guns, but never firing any of them. In a way, it almost gives a sense of what an average day on Haddock’s estate must be like, when Tintin and Captain Haddock aren’t overseas foiling an international conspiracy of some sort. All of a sudden, Tintin’s hyper-active journalist/detective sense seems to pick up any number of false positives, recognising a variety of potential sinister occurences. “What’s the meaning of that?” he asks throughout the story, finding footprints in strange places, investigating “a monster” in the attic and chasing strangers across the estate.

In any other story, these would all add up some sinister purpose, but here Hergé gives us the most mundane explanations possible. The footprints come from Castafiore’s pianist, sneaking out for some fresh air. The “monster” is just an owl. The intruders are not foreign agents or thugs, but paparazzi. It’s such a brilliant twist on all the conventions you’d expect from the series, and they work because they’re all things that could really happen – and so Tintin is completely unprepared to handle them… he’s expecting “more.” It’s an interesting way of looking at the conventional Tintin tropes.

Haddock needs to tune it out...

At the centre of the story, and giving it its title, is Bianca Castafiore’s jewelry. The diva’s jewelry is stolen, and Tintin and everyone around her expects a mystery. In fact, Hergé gives us no shortage of suspects, including Castafiore’s staff (both of whom are bullied by her, and one is a gambler), the press, and even Haddock’s doctor. It seems almost like a regular Tintin story, except that absolutely none of the little tangents are connected to the theft, and all the lines of inquiry seem to point to dead ends.

Hell, Hergé even sets up a plausible Red Herring for a mystery that doesn’t exist, such is the author’s devotion to screwing with his audience’s expectations. The gypsies living on the estate are given all the essential characteristics of villains – they seem to have mystical powers, they are secretive, they dislike outsiders – and everybody seems to suspect them. Haddock even gets a phone call from the chief of police, advising him, “But I should warn you: you’ll only have yourself to thank when they make trouble for you.”

Birds of a feather...

Of course, a seasoned reader knows that such prejudice is only being used to distract from the real culprit, so we assume that one of the other suspects must have stolen it. Then of course, Tintin insists, “But you’ve no right to suspect them just because they’re gypsies.” That suggests some sort of double-bluff, as if Hergé is pre-emptively defending himself from a backlash if the gypsies were responsible. It’s all very well done, and Hergé seems to have constructed the story as if it actually was a mystery, and then picked it apart, which is why it works so very well.

This is a divisive instalment. I can understand why some readers haven’t exactly warmed to it, as it’s quite  frustrating little attempt to play with the reader – something that can seem a bit rude if you aren’t expecting it. However, if you go in with an open mind, I’d argue there’s a lot of Hergé’s patented wit and humour to enjoy.

4 Responses

  1. I always felt this one felt a little “different” from the stories that came before and after, but I never identified exactly what it was. Great review.

  2. It is funny that I never saw “Castafiore’s Emerald” as frustrating. What it lacks in action and mystery, it makes up for in comedy and character study. I love it and I always have!

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