Josef Skvorecky ranks among the great Czech writers of the twentieth century, of which there are, of course, many – Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Ivan Kilma only form the beginnings of a list. When he and his wife fled to Canada in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, one of the first things they did was to set up a Czech publishing house. Ironically, the only one of his novels still in print in the UK seems to be The Cowards, published by Penguin Modern Classics a few years ago; The Engineer of Human Souls, generally regarded as his masterpiece (the title comes from a phrase Stalin used to describe writers) is out of print. Among his many books you will also find a detective series featuring the lugubrious Lieutenant Boruvka, the first of which, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, was published in 1966.
The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka contains twelve tales of murder and sleuthing. Despite the death count and Boruvka’s rather humourless approach to police work, the tone is light-hearted. In the first story, ‘The Supernatural Powers of Lieutenant Boruvka’, he arrives at the scene to find his subordinates determined to convince him that an apparent suicide is murder, so determined that they will not let him speak, so that when he finally agrees with them they are unaware that this is what he has been trying to tell them all along – based not on his supernatural powers but on some rather obvious proof. The stories typically involve ‘locked room’ room mysteries (one takes place in the changing rooms of a fashion show, another on a mountain top) or alibis which turn out not to be as rock solid as they first appear. All are satisfying and clever.
As the volume progresses, another dimension is added as Skvorecky begins to develop Boruvka’s character and link the stories together. No sooner is his teenage daughter, Zuzana, introduced than we find him on holiday in Italy with her:
“He had promised that if her school report turned out well, they would spend a holiday in Italy, the home of her mother’s family. He had, however, committed a fateful error: he had neglected to define the term ‘turn out well.’”
Not only does he solve one case there, but two – the second arising when guests of the cousin of the woman whose murder he solved in the previous story. Another recurring character is a young police woman who falls in love with him; in a moment of weakness he arranges to meet her in a bar, but a murder (of course) gets in the way.
The stories were clearly written with a great fondness for the genre, shared by Boruvka who frequently refers to detective fiction (though, at times, dismissively), leading to the wonderful conclusion to ‘Death on Needlepoint’:
“‘The things these scoundrels think up!’
‘Detective story writers you mean?’ asked Lieutenant Boruvka slyly.
‘No, I mean murderers!’ Sergeant Malik retorted with some heat.”
Boruvka’s knowledge of detective fiction aids him in solving two cases, though he’s not beyond having a dig at Karel Capek’s story ‘Hordubal’:
“If I were to write detective stories, he thought to himself, I would never leave the reader at sea.”
Sentiments which Skvorecky clearly shares. Translated detective fiction is now commonplace – something that was not the case twenty-five years ago when Boruvka was published by Faber. It seems reasonable to suggest a reprint is in order. Perhaps Pushkin Press’ new crime imprint Vertigo would be suitable match?