Josef Škvorecký: The Lieutenant Boruvka Stories

Around 1960 Josef Škvorecký began writing detective stories featuring Lieutenant Boruvka of the Prague police Homicide Unit; in 1981 he published the last of these stories, set in Toronto. Škvorecký sees these stories as documenting Czech society in that period:

…the things Boruvka can do and cannot do are determined by the kind of society he lives in. And if you read them in the order they were written, you can see the different periods or phases of life in Czechoslovakia since the 1950s.

Josef Skvorecký

The first collection of stories, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, was published in Czechoslovakia in 1966. The stories could take place anywhere from 1955 – 1965 in a gray Soviet world that might be anywhere in Warsaw Pact East Europe. The first few stories are puzzles of the detective type made popular in the 1920s and Boruvka is depicted as a master sleuth. It isn’t until the fourth story that Lieutenant Boruvka  is given a human dimension. We learn that Boruvka lives with his wife and teen-age daughter in an apartment that is generous by contemporary standards — his daughter has her own room and there is a study or workroom for Boruvka — nevertheless we have a sense of cramped space and a lack of privacy. Boruvka’s wife never figures into the stories, in fact is never described, but his daughter, Zuzana, becomes a recurrent character. In one story, Boruvka is trying to figure out a difficult math problem about a weapon that apparently has fallen and pierced a skull. He gives the problem to his daughter under the pretense of helping with her studies; he knows that she can’t solve the problem, but he thinks she knows someone who can. Sure enough, Zuzana phones a fellow student who may be a bit sweet on her who calculates the answer. Zuzana presents her father with the answer, he congratulates her, then solves the mystery.

Boruvka’s other humanizing dimension is a sexual longing that may be connected with his age (he always seems to be in his late forties or early fifties over the entire twenty year span of stories). He feels unease in an apartment decorated with 19th and early 20th Century sculpture and paintings that feature many naked young women. All of it is kitsch but as Škvorecký’s compatriot, Milan Kundera, wrote, kitsch is irresistable. Boruvka is attracted to a young woman working in the police office. He compliments her on her hairdo and she wears it that way forever after. He invites her to an assignation but is interrupted by a case that reminds him of Sin, something from his Catholic days before communism. He never again tries to bed the young woman, in fact treats her severely (causing his associates to think that he is having an affair with her), but she continues to wear her hair the way he likes it. This exemplifies the gentle satire that is typical of Škvorecký’s work.

Sins for Father Knox, published in 1973, is a collection of puzzles within mysteries. Father Knox was Bernard Knox, an Anglican (later Catholic) priest who formulated a 1929 list of Commandments for good detective stories. These commandments have to do with giving the reader a fair chance to solve the mystery and also to eliminate some overworked concepts and clichés. For example: no supernatural agencies, no longlost twins or doubles, no poisons hitherto unknown to science, and so on. Škvorecký’s stories each violate one commandment and the narrative is interrupted at the proper moment to ask the reader for both the solution and the commandment that has been violated. I don’t know of any other mysteries that so openly play with the form.

This kind of puzzle approach to detective fiction belongs to the 1920s so it may be surprising that the dialogue and flavour of the stories are derived from hardboiled  detective fiction of the 1930s. Škvorecký is a huge fan of Raymond Chandler but it is somewhat surprising to find a shamus trying to solve a mystery in a great house that is illustrated with a map in the manner of S.S. van Dine. It is also interesting that the detective in most of these cases is a woman.

Skvorecký and his wife, Zdena Salivarová

In the first story of the collection, Boruvka becomes convinced of the innocence of a jailed woman, Eve Adam (yes), and manages to free her. He also makes a pass at her but is spurned. The rest of the stories, except the last when Boruvka re-emerges, feature Eve Adam as the detective. She is an entertainer and travels the world; several stories are set in the United States, where Eve finds a sugar daddy. Perhaps this reflects the travels of Škvorecký himself who left Czechoslovakia after the 1968 uprising.

Škvorecký has a brief forward to The End of Lieutenant Boruvka where he sets forth his purpose: to show how Soviet domination affected an ordinary man who, in the end, can no longer bend but must stand up. There are five stories, each one telling of a case that Boruvka solves but where justice is not done. His daughter, meanwhile, has had a child by a man she refuses to marry either because he is already married or because he is an idiot or both. Zuzana takes up with a young man whose parents are American émigrés from the McCarthy Era. She has a child by him but the young man and his parents are deported after the 1968 Prague Spring. She wants to take her children and join him but the authorities refuse her permission to leave. In the final story of the book, Lieutenant Boruvka enables a child to leave Czechoslovakia to join her parents in exile. For this crime, he is imprisoned.

Boruvka’s incarceration kills his wife, she drops dead from shame or something, which is just as well because she never existed as a character. Perhaps here it should be mentioned that Zuzana had a younger brother in one story and a younger sister in others, but these children vanish along the way, lost in Škvorecký’s wanderings until he settled in Toronto. Eve Adam, who has consummated a relationship with Boruvka is still around, though, and she makes great efforts to obtain his release — in fact she breaks him out of jail, as we learn in the last book of the series.

The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka is a novel rather than a group of stories. It is narrated by a young Torontonian who sounds much like the idle bourgeois in an Agatha Christie mystery. The woman he admires has set up as a detective, a feminist detective, and here you may hear the gentle chuckle of the author in the background. Škvorecký is bemused by liberal Canadians who have no real idea of what tyranny can be. He also lampoons the Czech exile community which is divided into factions depending on when they left the auld sod. They tend to gather at the Old English Pub and debate whether or not Czechs would have been better off in some fantasy Austro-Hungarian empire magically created to order in 1918.

Zuzana works for the feminist detective, her husband was drafted upon his return to the States and is in Vietnam, Boruvka himself works as a parking lot attendant. Yes, he has been freed from prison (we never find out how) by Eve Adam who is now imprisoned herself back in Czechoslovakia. Of course, Boruvka is called up to solve the murder(s) and in the end everyone is happily reunited, Zuzana and her husband, Boruvka and Eve Adam (freed by means not revealed).

In early editions, Škvorecký subtitled his book “A Reactionary Mystery“. It is not his purpose to be a right-wing propagandist though, rather he wants to underscore Canadian ignorance of that great mass of historic pain that he sums up as “Europe”. We don’t understand Europe, he says, and the story wraps back through Soviet times into Nazi occupation and, of course, there is Austro-Hungary before that. Well, so we are, all of us, ignorant and it is always useful to receive instruction. And there is Zuzana, a bit disdainful of her father who still, after all he has been through, calls himself a socialist. But Boruvka, calling on the Latin he learned in Catholic boyhood, recasts the old adage as, “Spes longa, vita brevis“. Hope is a theme that Škvorecký explores in other, non-mystery, writings as well.

Škvorecký has written other mysteries. He began a series of five novels, the first two set in the 1930s, the next going into the war years, with his friend, the poet Jan Zábrana. These first three were published in Czech under Zábrana’s name but to my knowledge have not been translated. Zábrana died in 1984 and the project remains incomplete. In the late 1990s, Škvorecký began a series of mystery novels written with his wife, Zdena Salivarová. At least three have been published in Czech, but none translated so far.

Dates on the above books refer to their original publication in Czech, English translations are considerably later.

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka
Sins for Father Knox
The End of Lieutenant Boruvka
The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka

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2 comments on “Josef Škvorecký: The Lieutenant Boruvka Stories

  1. […] unjust world is a common theme for mystery writers — Soviet detectives in both the USSR  and Czchoslovakia, a  Chinese police officer (Qiu Xiaolong), a South African cop during apartheid (James […]

  2. […] unjust world is a common theme for mystery writers — Soviet detectives in both the USSR  and Czchoslovakia, a  Chinese police officer (Qiu Xiaolong), a South African cop during apartheid (James […]

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