was a Czech-Canadian writer and publisher, born in former
Czechoslovakia, who became an internationally acclaimed author of
works like Bassaxofon
1967) and Příběh
inženýra lidských duší (The
Engineer of Human Souls,
1977), but he was also a pillar of support to Czech dissident writers
– printing and smuggling their books into the country in defiance
of Communist censorship. When he was not thumbing his nose at the
totalitarian regime lording over his home country, Skvorecky was "an
avid reader of Ellery Queen, R. Austin Freeman, John Dickson Carr, et
love of mysteries found expression in a series of detective stories
about a melancholic, sad-eyed Czech policeman, Lieutenant Josef
Boruvka, who appeared in three short story collections and a novel.
The series has been described as "mischievous
of the traditional detective story with Hříchy
pro pátera Knoxe
for Father Knox,
1973), a collection with each story breaking one of Father Knox's
Commandments for Detective Fiction"
(1929), standing as the most well-known representative of that
reputation. However, the plots all hinge on a unifying gimmick, like
Agatha Christie's The
Labours of Hercules
(1947), which didn't allow him to really showcase his abilities as a
plotter. All he had to do was present a solution or situation that
violated one of Knox's ten rules.
is, however, one of the three collections in the series that has been
on my wishlist for ages. Smutek
(The Mournful Demeanour of
1966) introduced Lieutenant Boruvka in twelve short stories that are
either tongue-in-cheek or serious renditions of the classic detective
stories of yore, but loaded with bizarre clues, strange crimes and a
number of locked room mysteries. Robert Adey listed only three of the
stories in Locked Room Murders
(1991), but there are several more to be found here. So let's get
Supernatural Powers of Lieutenant Boruvka" opens the collection and
explains why Constable First Class Sintak is "firmly
convinced that Lieutenant Boruvka wielded powers that were not
entirely in keeping with normal human abilities,"
like a wizard, which he irrevocably proved to Sintak in the Semerak
case – a case officially handled by Boruvka's young sergeant.
Sergeant Malek meets with his superior at the scene of the crime, an
attic where an elderly woman was hanging by her neck from a rope tied
to a ceiling beam, but enthusiastic sergeant knew it was murder and
the whole story is basically a conversation between the two. A
conversation that quickly begins to poke fun at the fictional
detective who love being complicated for the sake of being
complicated. Malek's has complicated timetables, collected a piece
from a building as evidence and ordered divers, backed by a
helicopter, to go over a pond to look for a discarded bike.
Meanwhile, Boruvka tries to get in a word edgewise ("certainly,
but..." "it's just that...")
and it takes him a while before he can point out something really
obvious in the attic. Something proving without a doubt that the old
woman had been murdered.
story has a very thin plot, which hinges on the obvious, but it was a
genuinely amusing take on the exasperating, fictional detectives and
Malek gave his amateur counterparts a run for their money. But what
made the simplistic solution work is that both detectives were
correct. Only difference is that Malek took the long way round and
Boruvka a short cut. A great introduction to the lieutenant and his
the second story, "That Sax Solo," is the weakest and my least
favorite story from the collection. The lead singer of a Jazz band is
murdered at a hotel and Boruvka has to use a musical clue to break
down a musical alibi, but the clue was used in the worst possible way
to end the story.
Scientific Method" is the third story and one of the stories in the
collection that was overlooked by Adey in Locked
This is also the first theatrical mystery of the collection and
brings Lieutenant Boruvka to the Odeon Theatre where a ballet dancer
has been killed, a bullet fired "straight
into the nape of her neck,"
while she was taking a shower, but "a
body search of all the ladies"
was conducted before they left the showers – no weapon was
recovered. Malek remarks they have "a
on their hands. However, the trick has been done before and the idea
behind it can be considered as one of the
in impossible crime plotting. But the solution is the first one to
fascination as a plotter with trajectories and movement along
horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. You'll find this approach in
his more trickier and complicated stories.
on Needlepoint" is potential anthology material and reminiscent of
the mountaineering, open-air locked room mysteries by Glyn
The story begins with three mountaineers, Patera, Bartos and Jirina,
climbing the rocky face of Needlepoint linked by only a rope with a
sixty-foot precipice yawning beneath them. Patera is the first one to
make it over the overhang of the summit, but then the rope slackens
and when Bartos completes his harrowing ascent to the top, he makes a
terrifying discovery. Patera sat, "strangely
on the bare summit of the rock with his face between his knees and
carved handle of a bowie-knife protruding from his back."
Bartos recognized his own knife which he assumed was back at the camp
in his tent. When the police arrives, Boruvka discovers Patera and
Bartos were rivals who tried to win Jirina's affection. But how was
the murder carried out?
has a crime scene "which
the murderer couldn't have reached and from which he couldn't have
escaped," but the place is not half as inaccessible as it appears on first
sight. There are several very well done false-solutions with the one
accusing the third climber, Jirina, standing out as particular
ingenious, but the actual solution is no slouch either. Only thing
lacking was a diagram. It would have made the tricky solution so much
clearer. Unquestionably, one of the collection's stronger stories.
Deduction?" is a minor, forgettable story which I already have
trouble remembering. The story is part of a character-arc that runs
through the collection and concerns a young policewoman, Eva, who was
introduced in the third story and Boruvka is beginning to fall in
love with her. However, he's a married man with a teenage daughter
and an unimpeachable reputation as an inspector, which will cause
some serious trouble in later stories. So the modern trope of the
troubled policeman rears its ugly head here, but there's kind of a
payoff in the stories ahead. This story is not one of my favorites,
however, it perfectly demonstrates why I prefer plot over character.
next story is "The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory," but have
previously discussed it in my review of John Pugmire and Brian
Skupin's monumental anthology, The
Realm of the Impossible
(2017). It's one of the standout stories of the collection and a
solid impossible crime story in the tradition of the scientific
detective stories by Arthur
Tried and Proven Method" breaks with the routine of previous
stories as Boruvka promised his 17-year-old daughter, Zuzana, to
spend a holiday together in Italy ("the
home of her mother's family")
under the condition her school report turned out well, which she
interpreted as not failing her classes – collecting an abundance of
Cs, Ds and two As. Boruvka gave in and took Zuzana on her first trip
abroad, but the holiday slowly turned disastrous. They run out of gas
in the mountains and have to climb on foot to the hotel, but they
come across two very unusual sights in their track to the top.
Firstly, Zuzana notices that the pale, gold sand on a plateau sixty
feet below is disturbed "as
though a struggle had taken place there,"
but no tracks led to the spot. The sand all around was "absolutely
smooth." Secondly, they come across a dead woman near the stony path. Boruvka
knows its murder, but, as a Red policeman from a communist country,
he's regarded with suspicion and mocked to his face ("in
your country everyone suspicious").
Besides, the local police knows it must have been suicide. Not
The gravely ill victim was
not bludgeoned to death, but had fallen from a terrific height and
likely threw herself out of a cable cart, which she had repeatedly
threaten to do. She was seen boarding the cable cart alone and it
arrived at the station empty with an open door. Nobody could have
gotten to her. Boruvka is still convinced it was murder and comes up
with an interesting solution befitting such an unusual, bizarrely
staged impossible murder. A solution treading dangerously close to
the territory of second-rate pulp trickery, but Skvorecky handled and
presented the trick very convincingly.
Light" is a sequel, of sorts, to "A Tried and Proven Method" in
which Boruvka and Zuzana spend a few days of their Italian holiday as
guests of Signor Greffi. A relative of the victim from the previous
story and out of gratitude for capturing her murderer, he invited
father and daughter to his Venetian residence. Boruvka finds himself
in a "linguistic
among the English and Italian speaking guests, which is a situation
that's hardly improved by the murder of their host. This story is a
quasi-locked room mystery masquerading as a closed-circle whodunit,
but this time the solution is unmistakably pulpy in nature. Something
you would expect from John
Nonetheless, I can appreciate a good, pulp-style impossible crime and
liked the clue of the ugly doll.
Logic" begins with the murder of a model during a fashion show,
stabbed to death in her dressing room cubicle, but the murder serves
as vehicle for an argument between Boruvka and "the
policewoman," Eva. Boruvka is annoyed at his infatuation with Eva and becomes quite
unpleasant to her over the course of the investigation, which results
in him chiding her that "the
homicide squad cannot be guided by feminine logic"
had no idea what Aristotelian logic was."
However, while Eva's view of the case "could
hardly be termed strictly Aristotelian logic,"
she beats Boruvka to the solution. Not the strongest of the stories
collected here, but an interesting, well done variation on that
rarely used trope of the rival detectives.
"The End of an Old
Tom-Cat" has better storytelling and imagery than plotting
beginning on the night Boruvka is kept awake by a whole quartet of
cats, wailing a concert on the roof of his house, while an old tomcat
lay dying at the other end of the city – foreshadowing next
morning's murder case. Boruvka is summoned to the home of a
well-known Public Prosecutor, Paul Hynais, who died in his bed that
night with all the tale-tell signs of poisoning. Hynais turns out to
have been somewhat of roguish tomcat, in human guise, who accepted
favors from women to go light on the men in their lives in the
courtroom. This angle brings back a character from an earlier story,
but, on a whole, the story surrounding the murder was more
interesting than the murder itself. Boruvka actually finds part of
the solution in Ellery
Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).
For some reason, "The
End of an Old Tom-Cat" strongly reminded me of the Inspector Ghote
novels, like Inspector Ghote's Good Crusade (1966), by H.R.F.
"His Easiest Case" is
shortest story of the bunch with an incredibly misleading title,
because it's kind of brilliant, plot-wise, but how the story is
structured and told makes it one of the standouts of The Mournful
Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka. The policewoman who has been
occupying Boruvka's thoughts is attacked with meat chopper in a
murderous assault and left critically injured, but Sergeant Malek
already has a suspect and an indisputable piece of evidence. A
thumbprint with "a very clear and distinctive scar." A
print that belongs to Boruvka and it was the only print found in the
apartment that has been professionally wiped clean. So did he
actually took a swing with a meat chopper? Only way out is to find an
explanation how the fingerprint could have ended up there and that
explanation truly is an inspired piece of plotting. An idea that
deserved a novel-length treatment, but the who-and why had equally
fascinating solutions. Something you can only, sort of, anticipate if
you've paying close attention to one of the previous stories. The
same applies to the last story.
“Crime in a Girls' High
School” is best described as an anti-detective story and actually a
prologue that was put to better use as an effective closing-act.
Boruvka tells Eva how he had to abandon his first profession as a gym
teacher, which happened nearly twenty years ago in the wake of a
theft. A former private detective was called in, Jaroslav V. Klima,
who acts as a hotblooded Hercule Poirot as he follows all the clues
to uncover a very different kind of problem. The ending explains to
Eva why "deep, infinite sadness" was "ineradicably
engraved on the lieutenant's face." There were clues to what's
behind his melancholy in previous stories that fitted the clues Klima
was tracking down. So, while a little unorthodox, the story is a
fitting end to an unusual collection of detective stories solved by a
reassuringly human detective.
So, on a whole, The
Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka follows to the tradition
of short story collections by being a little uneven in quality with a
few duds and focus shifting from plot to character or storytelling,
which resulted in some tightly-plotted locked room mysteries and some
more loosely-told character-arcs – although the clueing was a
little murky at times. However, the overall result succeeded in
venturing off the beaten path while remaining (mostly) true to the
fundamentals of the traditional detective story. For example, the
last two stories. Skvorecky's The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant
Boruvka is a noteworthy and original contribution to the genre
during a period when these type of detective stories were considered
old-fashioned or even obsolete. Skvorecky demonstrated early on that
you can have a fusion of styles complementing both the classical and