The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky

I must admit that I’m a sucker when it comes to lost or neglected novels, and very easily biddable when I read good reviews of them. So when Grant at 1stReading waxed lyrical and praise Josef Skvorecky’s rather neglected collection of crime stories, not only did I rue the fact that I hadn’t picked up the several of the author’s books I’d seen in the Samaritans recently, but I also dashed off to order a copy of Lt. Boruvka’s adventures post-haste. Plus I seem to be in a groove with slightly off-centre detective novels at the moment.  And when the book arrived I really wasn’t disappointed… 🙂

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First, a few words about Skvorecky from Wikipedia: Josef Škvorecký, September 27, 1924 – January 3, 2012) was a Czech-Canadian writer and publisher. He spent half of his life in Canada, publishing and supporting banned Czech literature during the communist era. Škvorecký was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980. He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. Škvorecký’s fiction deals with several themes: the horrors of totalitarianism and repression, the expatriate experience, and the miracle of jazz.

Music seems to be a recurring theme in his work, and it certainly crops up in this fascinating collection of short stories; although actually, the book rather straddles the line between short story and novel. Despite the fact that each tale has a title and is self-contained, the narrative is nevertheless continuous and the characters and stories develop as the book goes one. But whatever you want to call it, it’s a great read.

Lieutenant Boruvka himself is an engaging and indeed melancholy man whose mournful demeanour is on display from the start. Middle aged, with a round face and tufted hair, he’s not an obviously inspiring detective. Yet from the very first story he displays a wonderful knack of getting to the bottom of things, tackling here a suicide that may or may not be murder. In many of the tales, he’s accompanied by his Sergeant, Malek, and Constable First Class Sintak (the latter being in great awe of his boss). And then there is the beautiful policewoman with her hair in a chignon who inspires passion in both Boruvka and Malek. As the stories continue, a wonderful picture is built up of this ensemble cast, their Prague milieu and the criminal element they have to deal with.

Boruvka’s wife and daughter initially make fleeting appearances, but as the book goes on they become much more important to the plot (two of the later stories feature father and daughter on vacation abroad, where we find out more about the family and also witness a cop from behind the Iron Curtain encountering his equivalent in the outside world). The whole thing is brilliantly written, cleverly drawing you along and gradually revealing more in each story – rather like the episodes in a TV story, perhaps. We eventually find out the cause of much of Boruvka’s melancholy and on the way we’re treated to some cracking mystery stories (Gromit!). Skvorecky is not averse to having little in-jokes at the expense of the detective story genre, with Boruvka commenting about one of their cases that any reader of crime novels would recognise it straight away as a Locked Room Mystery!

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I haven’t given away much about the mysteries themselves as I don’t want to spoil them, but they’re a very clever set of tales, covering all sorts of crimes; some which may not even be crimes. And Boruvka and his creator never leave the reader without a satisfactory conclusion or a tieing up of loose ends. Part of the frisson comes from reading about detecting behind the Iron Curtain; but despite the unusual setting, the characters are all familiar and recognisable human beings.

I can’t thank Grant enough for pointing me in the direction of the mournful detective and these fabulous tales. Best news of all? There are three other books which feature Lieutenant Boruvka, so I’ll be able to indulge myself in more tales of Czechoslovakian crime!

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As an aside, the copy of the book I picked up was an old Faber volume from a couple of decades ago, and I was interested to note that several translators worked on the book. This didn’t as a rule create problems, though it did niggle slightly that some of the stories had Malek’s first name as Pavel and some as Paul – I like consistency where possible…. 🙂

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