The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (1966) by Josef Skvorecky

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech-Canadian writer and publisher, born in former Czechoslovakia, who became an internationally acclaimed author of works like Bassaxofon (The Bass Saxophone, 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 al."

Skvorecky 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 parodies" of the traditional detective story with Hříchy pro pátera Knoxe (Sins for Father Knox, 1973), a collection with each story breaking one of Father Knox's "Ten 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.

There is, however, one of the three collections in the series that has been on my wishlist for ages. Smutek poručíka Borůvky (The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, 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 started! 

"The 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. 

This 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 sergeant!

Unfortunately, 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. 

"The Scientific Method" is the third story and one of the stories in the collection that was overlooked by Adey in Locked Room Murders. 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 miraculous marksman" on their hands. However, the trick has been done before and the idea behind it can be considered as one of the earliest innovations in impossible crime plotting. But the solution is the first one to show Skvorecky's 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. 

"Death on Needlepoint" is potential anthology material and reminiscent of the mountaineering, open-air locked room mysteries by Glyn Carr. 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 contorted," on the bare summit of the rock with his face between his knees and "the 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?

Boruvka 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. 

"Whose 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.

The 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 Porges. 

"A 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 murder. 

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. 

"Falling 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 isolation" 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 Russell Fearn or Gerald Verner. Nonetheless, I can appreciate a good, pulp-style impossible crime and liked the clue of the ugly doll. 

"Aristotelian 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" and "she 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. Keating

"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 modernist schools.


  1. Computer problems; trying one more time:

    The October 1967 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine - "the International issue" - featured "The Classic Semerak Case" by Josef Skvorecky, the first ever appearance of Lieutenant Boruvka in the English language.
    In his introduction, Fred Dannay notes that an English translation of Boruvka is "blueberry"; from his writeup, Dannay indicates that he'd have been open to see more Boruvka stories in EQMM, but that didn't come about (that whole Cold War thing, evidently ...).

    Some years after this, Josef Skvorecky's stories began to appear in English translation, in US trade paperback editions, including the Boruvkas - but you already know that.
    Since I remembered the 1967 EQMM, I picked up the books once they came out in the USA, so there's that.
    Anyway, I just thought you'd like to know ...

    1. Always! That's why you have a comment-section. You can dump whatever you think is relevant in mine.

      Boruvka would have made an interesting addition as a regular to the magazine during the sixties.