The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka (1981) by Josef Skvorecky


On starting this novel, I was a little apprehensive over whether I would enjoy it or not, having disliked another of Skvorecky’s works, Sins for Father Knox (1973), whose portrayal of women was quite frequently disturbing and unpleasant. Unlike, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (1966) and Sins for Father Knox, The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka (1981) is not a collection of short stories. Moreover, Eve Adams (the female lead of Sins for Father Knox), only makes the briefest of appearances and the same could almost be said for Lieutenant Boruvka himself, as until the end of the novel, the focus is on two North American characters.

The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka is set in Toronto. The Lieutenant has escaped their after events in the previous novel, The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (1975), where having tried to achieve justice in Communist ruled Prague, he ended up in prison. This migration to Canada mirrors Skvorecky’s own life as he and his wife also departed to Canada after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Man protesting against the Warsaw Pact Czechoslovakia invasion
Man protesting against the Warsaw Pact Czechoslovakia invasion

This novel is narrated from the point of view of Neil Donby, a North American, whose sister, Heather, at the start of the book has been murdered, shot in their mutual friend’s (Jirina’s) kitchen. Heather had a great many male admirers, including Neil’s best friend Harrison Morrison, who although does not pursue her, does keep a mental record of all her men friends. Neil has a girlfriend called Shelia and she runs a private detective agency called The Watchful Sisters and at least at the start of the book is regarded as a feminist and a socialist, with her agency focusing on solving cases for women. The rest of the story follows her, Neil and others as they try to find Heather’s killer. The police regard the murder as a crime of passion, given Heather’s past, which has many links into the Czech community living in Toronto.

Lieutenant Boruvka (now just Mr Boruvka, working as a car park attendant) is brought into the story where Shelia’s secretary, who just so happens to be Mr Boruvka’s daughter. Yet old habits die hard as his daughter mentions a couple of questions he has about the case to Shelia. This leads to her and Neil meeting with Mr Boruvka, only to dismiss him and question his ability as a detective. However, it is Mr Boruvka who manages to steer Neil and Shelia on to the right track, suggesting that Heather might not have been the real target, but Jirina, who writes the Toronto Lady (a Czech scandal sheet). Moreover, Jirina has a private case of her own, which is close to her heart, the death of her father in Prague at the hands of a Gestapo Officer in World War 2. Despite the number of years which have passed she still wants to track him down, armed with his finger prints, which were retrieved by her mother at the time. But as both Neil, Shelia and Jirina’s investigations continue and as the body count begins to rise, along with the number of suspects, it falls to Mr Boruvka to figure out the case before it’s too late.

I thought it was an interesting choice on Skvorecky’s part to choose an American to narrate the story, as unlike the author, Neil, is an outsider to the Czech community and its politics and history. However, by the end of the novel, although a little bit forced, I felt Neil is able to understand a little how Czech immigrants and refugees feel about their situation and life in general. Although as a narrator Neil is fairly condescending and dismissive of feminism and women empowering themselves or exploring and questioning their role in society generally. This is best seen through his thoughts about Shelia. Although in many ways she is an improvement on Eve Adam from Sins for Father Knox, being supportive of single mothers and those who buck social norms, Neil consistently in the narration undermines her ideals and emphasises almost smugly when she conforms more closely to the image of the traditional woman. For example, Shelia is generally sympathetic towards criminals who have been convicted, believing that their environment has caused this to happen. However, when Neil describes this to us the reader he says, ‘long prison sentences and lack of fibre in the prison diet outraged her,’ the juxtaposition of years of jail time with the food they eat, portrays Shelia almost like a bored woman needing a hobby. Moreover, the tone of triumph when Shelia disbands her agency, marries Neil and has his daughter at the novel’s denouement, suggests that to the narrator at least, Shelia’s adventure into being a more independent and unconventional woman (for the times), was just a phase she had to go through before becoming “normal” again. Although, male supremacy is reinforced before this point as just before the case is solved, and the race is on to save Jirina, Shelia essentially falls apart and it is up to Mr Boruvka and Neil to catch the killer and solve the case, not that Neil is that adept, getting nearly run over. It is disappointing that Mr Boruvka and his daughter did not have a larger presence in the novel as for me they were the most likeable and mature characters.

Rating: 2.5/5 (In regards to the actual plot itself, in the way the crime was constructed and solved, it was quite a good book, particularly if you enjoy more hard boil detective fiction, of whose conventions Skvorecky makes use of and references. However, I think the way women are portrayed in the novel is dated now, making it harder for a modern (especially a female) reader to enjoy. It is disappointing that none of Skvorecky’s initially strong female leads are able to remain so at the end of the stories.)

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