Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Josef Škvorecky's The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (#mystery, #europe)

"In the few works of fiction written so far by Czech authors about the events of the year 1968 and their consequences, the heroes have inevitably been intellectuals. In this collection of crime stories, however, I have tried to look at some of the causes and results of that bust-up of Marxism through the eyes of a simple man."

The End of Lieutenant Boruvka is the third of Škvorecky's four books about Boruvka, the Prague homicide detective. It came out in 1975 in Czech, and was translated into English by Paul Wilson in 1989. That quote is from Škvorecky's introduction.

The book contains five stories set in the years 1967-1969. Lieutenant Boruvka is melancholic as a rule, and never more sad than when he solves a case. The earlier books were nevertheless pretty funny. This one, set around the years of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, is not without humour, but distinctly darker.

In the first story, 'Miss Peskova Regrets', a club dancer, who may occasionally engage in a little light prostitution, is found dead in her apartment, asphyxiated when the gas on her stove is no longer lit. Accident? Suicide? Of course not.

'Strange Archaeology': Years before Boruvka was a homicide lieutenant, he was a lowly investigator in the Missing Persons department. His first case was the disappearance of Kvetuse Rerichova. Rerichova had taken all her money out of her account, packed up all her clothing, and told her mother she was going away for the weekend. She never came back.

Rerechova's father and brother had escaped to New York earlier, and Boruvka wraps the case up as a successful escape to the West. His work is so clean he's promoted for it. Then years later a body's found while excavating for new construction. Rerechova? Yes.

In 'Ornaments in the Grass' two sixteen-year-old girls are found gunned down in a meadow by a sub-machine gun. Various military units had been engaged in maneuvers in the area and the girls had been flirting with the soldiers. Surely one of them had to do it, right?

The invasion (August 20-21 of 1968) occurs between the third and fourth stories. There's personnel changes in the office. Major Kautsky, Boruvka's boss's boss, who serves the usual function in such stories of obstruction and illogical requests, turns out to be a hero in the aftermath, and is now in jail himself. Boruvka is saddled with a new sergeant, Pudil, a zealous communist and an anti-semite.

In the fourth story 'Humbug', a delivery driver Krasa for a candy company is banged over the head with a wrench. It turns out Krasa's last name had once been Schoenfeld and he'd served time for thinking about fleeing the country. Pudil is happy to label the victim as a bourgeois Jew and not look very deep.

The final story is 'Pirates'. A spy for the secret police is living in an apartment and clearly spying on one of his neighbours. Then he's murdered. Which of the neighbours was he actually spying on and which one did it?

In the first four cases, Boruvka has pretty clearly determined the murderer, but is not allowed to bring the case to a conclusion for political reasons. In the fifth, he takes matters into his own hands. (Consider the title. Though I will note there is yet another book, which I haven't read.)

Many of the recurring characters reappear. Sergeant Malek, Boruvka's impulsive but wrongheaded underling, performs the same role here, though in the last two stories he's outclassed in his wrongheadedness by Pudil. Eve Adams, the lounge singer, who pretty much served as the protagonist/detective in the previous one, also appears here. And Lieutenant Boruvka's wife and daughter also reappear. There's a plotline through all five stories about Zuzanna, the daughter. It turns out she's pregnant, by somebody she's not married to and won't be getting married to. 

The title of the first story is an allusion to the Cole Porter song 'Miss Otis Regrets' and at the beginning Zuzanna is listening to the song. Lieutenant Boruvka doesn't yet understand what's up with his daughter, but when he hears the song, he gets worried.

We're not told which version Zuzanna is listening to, and I suppose Ella Fitzgerald is more likely, but I figure you can't go wrong with Fred Astaire, even if, by 1960, his voice (and his dancing) were no longer what they'd once been:

I may very well now think this is the best of three I've read, though I reserve the right to change my mind back to the first one. 😉 All three are a lot of fun.

Covering the Czech Republic for this year's European Reading Challenge.


  1. A writer I've consistently intended to read...but haven't, yet. It sounds very good!

    1. I haven't tackled any of his big ones myself: say The MIracle Game (see below) or Engineer of Human Souls (the prizewinner). But one of these days.

  2. In many people's eyes Josef Škvorecký 's masterpiece is The Miracle Game - almost Victorian in its size and the range of its characters and circling around a detective story. No Boruvka, but still very good.

    1. I definitely have it in my head to read The Miracle Game. It does sound good.

  3. I'm not sure I've read any books by Czech authors; I'll have to write this one down.

  4. Wow! You find such unique and interesting books. I love it! This one sounds like one I'd like to read. And I still want to read Karel Capek based on your reviews. I haven't come across him yet!

    1. Since he and his wife emigrated to Toronto after the invasion in 1968, I do think he's bigger news here. I don't believe I'd heard of him until I moved here. But he's good!