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The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky (Norton: $14.95; 288 pp.)

August 23, 1987|Stewart Lindh | Lindh is a frequent contributor to The Book Review. and

Detective stories observe the world through myopic eyes. With a fetish for detail, they reveal how we lose sight of ourselves and confuse the abstract here (conspiracies, revenge and murders within the mind) with the concrete there (the landscape of a fingerprint, the noose of a thread, and the exclamation point of a hair).

This collection of 12 linked stories mocks the blind spot we use as sight and, with a profound sadness, implies that any criminal is a priori a fool, for we stand shiveringly naked before ourselves. Of clues, there are many; of secrets, none.

Master of these whispering puzzles is a 63-year-old Czech writer whose first novel was banned. As a result of official censorship, Josef Skvorecky emigrated to Canada, where he is now an English professor. Reading Skvorecky, one sees why any repressive society would fear his scrutiny. His vision is greater than that of a mystery writer. He pierces through the scene of the crime and confronts society for allowing murder to become the last language of communication.

This archipelago of tales demands intellectual rigor before surrendering a profound study of human character. The common denominator is Lt. Boruvka--a middle-aged Czech homicide inspector whose badge should be engraved with Oscar Wilde's irony: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances." Swaddled with gloom, Boruvka is a Tiresias given sight by the blind actions of others. Criminals keep leaving behind miniature displays of evidence that the detective cannot fail to see.

Each murder is embedded within the nomenclature of a certain world: ballet, music, science and mountain climbing. Boruvka must memorize the language of that subculture before stepping through its web of distractions to seize upon the prime sign of guilt. Skvorecky reserves the last story to explain the reason for Boruvka's galactic darkness, the mystery within his own life.

A reader can choose to treat these narratives as parodies of mystery stories, but lurking at the side of every story is the following question: How can a detective find truth in a society concealing it? He can't. This, too, is perhaps part of Lt. Boruvka's gloom. He lives in a society that itself is guilty of a monstrous crime: the murder of truth.

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