2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Josef Skvorecky’s ground-breaking detective collection The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Burovaka. The first murder mysteries set behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, it would pave the way for detective novels such as Gorky Park and Child 44.
The Czech writer Josef Skvorecky lived a life that might have provided the plots for several thrillers. As a young man during World War Two, he survived a spell working as a slave laborer in a Nazi aircraft factory. A jazz-loving liberal, in the 1950s he risked imprisonment and torture for courageously opposing Czechoslovakia’s draconian communist regime. When the Soviet Union invaded his country in 1968, Skvorecky took to the streets to protest in front of Red Army tanks. With a sentence in the gulags hanging over him, and his novels banned by the new Moscow-backed regime, the author and his wife made a hair-raising escape across the border into the West, before finally finding safety in Canada.
Skvorecky was by now 63 years old. Throughout his career he’d been writing stories featuring a brilliant, eccentric sleuth in the style of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown or Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret—investigators who share empathy with the criminal as well as with the victim.
He’d completed two sets of short stories while still living in Prague under the watchful eye of the secret police. His detective was the chubby, middle-aged homicide investigator, Inspector Boruvka. Shrewd and insightful, with the cold rationality of Sherlock Holmes, Boruvka lives perpetually under a dark cloud of melancholy. There is a good reason for that, one which goes far beyond his dull loveless marriage and unrequited passion for his police colleague, Eva. Boruvka’s gloominess stems from knowing that he is seeking the truth in a country with a government whose trade is lies and falsehood; from the fact that he is solving murders on behalf of a murderous regime.
This is serious subject matter, but Skvorecky never allows it to become heavy or dull. Instead, the Burovka stories are witty and charming, filled with comedic characters. High amongst them are the half-witted communist bureaucrats who constantly hamper Burovka’s investigations, which, naturally, must be carried out strictly according to the principles of Marxist-Leninism. The stories are full of sharply observed scenes of life under an authoritarian regime and evocative descriptions of one of Europe’s most beautiful and cultured cities.
The Prague Homicide Bureau sleuth’s first outing came in The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Burovka, written in the mid-sixties but not published in English until the author was in Toronto. In it the solemn detective investigates twelve crimes (ten in Czechoslovakia, two while on holiday in Italy). They are all classic whodunits in the style of Ellery Queen (one is even a “locked room” puzzle) and feature settings that range from the theatre to the snowy peaks of the Tatra mountains.
The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka
The second “Czech” collection of Burovka stories, Sins of Father Knox, was published in English for the first time that same year. The title is a playful reference to the English mystery writer of the Golden Age of Detective fiction Father Ronald Knox. The Catholic priest had codified his Ten Rules of Detective Fiction in 1929. In one of the ten tales in this collection Skvorecky broke one of Knox’ rules—but in which story and which rule is it?
Sins for Father Knox
Once he arrived in Toronto, Skorevky concentrated his energy on literary fiction and in running a publishing house for Czech authors. He would not return to his gloomy detective for over a decade. The End of Lieutenant Burovka appeared in 1989. The setting is Czechoslovakia in the months leading up to the Prague Spring, a period when liberal forces were at work within the Czech government and it looked as if freedom was coming.
Burovka finds himself perplexed by the young generation who are embracing Flower Power and talking of peace and love, but luckily there is a murder for him to solve. While he investigates, the Kremlin is massing its armies on the border. Soon they will move in and put a stop to what the Soviet leadership sees as a dangerous threat to the workers’ paradise they claim to have created. The novel ends with Burovka—like the Czech people—trapped in a tight corner, one from which it seems impossible to escape.
The End of Lieutenant Burovka
Burovka was often called the Czech Sherlock Holmes and—happily—he makes a Reichenbach Falls-style recovery to reappear. The Return of Lieutenant Burovka was published in 1990. In it, the somber sleuth has—like his creator—escaped from the Soviets and settled in Canada. He’s making a meager living working as an attendant in a parking lot and struggling to get to grips with the ways of western society. Soon the murder of a possible spy finds him offering his expertise to a young Toronto police detective. Sharp and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, this would be the sad-eyed Burovka’s final outing.
Skvorecky saw his homeland liberated from communism in 1989. Celebrated in Prague (where his books had found an enthusiastic audience despite being banned by the authorities) he was awarded the nation’s highest honour, The Order of the White Lion, by President Vaclav Havel in 1990. A fierce and lifelong enemy of totalitarianism, the impish Czech crime writer died in 2012.