Today, Skvorecky is usually more well known for his non-crime fiction novels which tackle themes such as expatriation, political extremism and Jazz, as well for publishing banned Czechoslovakian literature during the Communist era there (having moved to Canada in 1968). But Skvorecky also wrote detective fiction:
• The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (1966) (Already read)
• Sins for Father Knox (1973)
• The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (1975)
• The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka (1980)
In an interview in 2000 with Julie Hansen Skvorecky explains that he got into writing detective fiction when he was in hospital in 1960 being treated for hepatitis B where his friends brought him detective novels to read. He felt they had a ‘therapeutic value’. Together with his wife, Honza Zabrana he then began writing some. Skvorecky is not the only writer to turn to crime writing after ill health, as S. S. Van Dine accredits a similar reason for his own start in crime writing. Skvorecky, also suggests that Edgar Allen Poe was a significant influence on his crime writing and he even wrote a TV drama Poe and the Murder of a Beautiful Girl, which is based on Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’.
(Link to full interview with Julie Hansen: http://www.cereview.org/00/37/interview37_skvorecky.html )
Sins for Father Knox (1973) is a collection of 10 short stories featuring Lieutenant Boruvka (Skvorecky’s serial detective) to a small extent, but mostly concentrates on a singer and actress, Eve Adam and they take place in many different countries around the globe such as Czechslovakia, Sweden and America. However, these stories are not just your typical detective puzzle, with the reader guessing the criminal, motive and opportunity. There is a further puzzle for the readers to solve (which is presented like an Ellery Queen reader challenge within the tales), which is what rule from Father Ronald Knox’s Decalogue (1929) is being broken in each story? (answers are included at the end of the book). Father Knox was a British Golden Age crime writer and priest, who was involved in the Detection Club. His Decalogue was a list of 10 rules for writing crime fiction. They were:
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Some of these rules make good sense as in my opinion it is annoying when writers throw in a completely new character to play the role of the murderer at the end of the novel (Rule No. 1). Some are a little tongue in cheek such as Rule No.5. This has been subjected to many interpretations such as being deemed racist and writers such as P. D. James seemed rather baffled by it (See her article in the Spectator, 2013, ‘Who Killed the Golden Age of Crime?’). However, a more common interpretation is that Father Knox was trying to fight against the use of the literary stereotype, which was prevalent in works such as Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, of Chinese people being evil world masterminds. Skvorecky is not the first writer to deliberately flout these rules, but he is the only one (to my knowledge) to structure an entire collection of short stories around such rule breaking.
The first tale is called ‘Sin No. 1: An Intimate Business,’ set in Czechoslovakia and features both Lieutenant Boruvka and Eve Adam (a biblical allusion which consciously links back to the idea of sin). Lieutenant Boruvka is visiting Eve in a women’s prison, where she has been incarcerated for the murder of her director and sometime lover. Lieutenant Boruvka though, despite all the compelling circumstantial evidence, believes she was wrongly convicted. The solution to her release lies in the dialogue she and Lieutenant Boruvka have. Lieutenant Boruvka is not your typical hero detective and Skvorecky clearly portrays his fallibilities and weaknesses. This view is partially shared by Eve Adam at the beginning of the story when she thinks, ‘How can this chump be a detective?’
‘Sin No. 2 Mistake in Hitzungsee’ takes place in Sweden with an unnamed blonde at a bar reading The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) which is the title of book written by G. K. Chesterton. A man enters the bar holding a book called Thursday’s Child, which may be a reference to the same named novel by Noel Streatfeild (1970). Like in the novel written by Chesterton, not everything is what it seems in this tale. The man enters into conversation with the blonde and refers to solving her man problem later that night. This particular blonde turns out to Eve Adams who is sharing a hotel room with a girl called Zuzka, who is never short of gentlemen admirers. Except this time her gentleman admirer is married and is soon found murdered, after his wife spots the two of them together. With circumstantial evidence pointing the finger at Zuzka, Eve Adam steps into prevent her arrest by solving the case with the detective.
Sins for Father Knox Part 2 will examine the other stories and include my overall thoughts about the collection, including how successful Skvorecky’s experiment with breaking Father Knox’s rules was.