I recently got back from la Creuse in central France, where the annual local treasure hunt has been glossed by an insanely elaborate, cross-disciplinary polytext. The instructions for ‘Sherlock Holmes enquête à Boussac’ come on a double-sided sheet of A3 done up to look like an old newspaper, l’Eclaireur. About 15 square inches of it are taken up by the rules; the rest – six fat columns of newsprint (c.3300 words) – is devoted to explaining the game’s back story. Holmes and Watson have been summoned to the small Creusois town of Boussac by a painter friend, who has been tipped off by one of his more famous painter friends (Gauguin) that there’s buried treasure in the region.
Gauguin’s mother Alina, daughter of the feminist Flora Tristan, lived with her partner for a time in a commune in Boussac along with the socialist thinker Pierre Leroux and George Sand. The paper doesn’t make it clear why the members of the commune decided to bury treasure one day, but they did, apparently, and the clues to its whereabouts are to be found in Sand’s Jeanne – ‘a novel Mrs Hudson would enjoy’, Watson chips in.
On the train to Boussac, Watson summarises the story for Holmes: following her mother’s death, a beautiful young woman, Jeanne, is taken advantage of – but remains pure – by a series of nefarious individuals, including a group of rascally aristos and an evil aunt known as ‘La Grand Gothe’. Before she dies, Jeanne tells one of the more pleasant characters, Sir Arthur Harley, that there is treasure ‘in the earth’. The treasure isn’t gold and silver, however, but knowledge, which is worth as much as gold – ‘vaut de l’or’. Watson expects Holmes to be disappointed when he hears this, but Holmes has figured out what’s really going on: a cunning jeu de mot. ‘Vaut de l’or’ is an allusion to the local myth, mentioned by some peasants at the beginning of Jeanne, of the ‘veau d’or’ – a priceless golden calf buried somewhere in the countryside.
To find the golden calf, or whatever it was that the socialists buried in lieu of a golden calf, or whatever the Boussac tourist office have buried – or pretended to bury – in lieu of what the socialists buried in lieu of a golden calf, participants in the treasure hunt have to apply magnifying glass and thinking-pipe to five places referred to in Jeanne: Boussac, Boussac-Bourg, Les Pierres Jaumâtres (a mysterious prehistoric stone monument), Saint-Pierre-le-Bost and Toulx-Sainte-Croix. In each of these places is a letter of the alphabet; put them together and you spell out the name of the treasure’s hiding place. Once you’ve worked that out, write it on the tear-off slip at the bottom of l’Eclaireur and return it to the Boussac tourist office by 30 September, and you could win a 150-euro ‘repas gastronomique’, which may or may not include blanquette de veau.