Monday, February 13, 2012

Death On Needlepoint - Josef Skvorecky

In the 165 odd years of the existence of the formal detective story, innumerable murder mysteries have been set in country houses, libraries of the country houses, theaters, colleges, schools, trains, ships, flights, automobiles, gardens, hotels, bookshops, golf courses etc. But what are some of the most unlikely places ever conceived as the locale of a murder mystery? I'll be exploring 7 stories this week (of the 16 that I have found so far) which invariably contains a murder with a most unusual crime scene for its setting! Interestingly, most of these stories also fall into the impossible crime territory which makes me wonder whether the author's motive of setting a story in such a bizarre locale can rationally be explained only by the impossible nature of the crime?

Theme for the week: Murder in the Most Unlikely Places
Story: Death On Needlepoint
Author: Josef Skvorecky
Source: The Mournful Demeanors of Lieutenant Boruvka
Story Number: 44
Out of the 12 stories in the first collection of stories by Josef Skvorecky, 3 of them feature the  locked room or impossible crime theme and 3 of the stories could equally fit into my theme for this week - murders set in exotic locations!
In this story, Lt Boruvka of the Prague police force is called in to investigate an impossible murder in an exotic location - on the top of a mountain or a rock face. One woman, two of her suitors and one mutual friend (who is not a climber) to the three climbers have been planning this tough hike for quite some time. The three climbers decide to ascend the rock face from the east side with all three connected to each other with the rope harness so that they can communicate with each other. 2 men go in front and the woman forms the rear. The non climber tends to the base camp. With the summit just a few minutes away, they end up in bad weather with the mist hiding them from one another and from their surroundings. At this instance, the man in the middle gets a shock when he feels the harness rope being disengaged from the climber on top and also from the one at the bottom - which would only mean death if something goes wrong. He suspects that the man above him must have reached the top but he can't understand why the woman below should have disengaged her harness. The mist clears in a few minutes and the second man reaches the top in another 10 minutes only to find the first person to have been stabbed with a knife!
Lt. Boruvka has only 3 suspects to pin this murder on but his most challenging problem is to figure out how the murder could be committed on top of a mountain which doesn't have any other access to the top and is cut off from all the other neighboring mountains. He quickly does away with the simplest idea that it was the second climber who killed the first one. Next, he considers the situation of the non climber taking a gravel path to reach the top, kill the climber and get back to the base camp before his other two friends go down. Not being happy with this solution, he takes the help of the students from a mountain climbing academy to test his third theory that it was the woman who killed the first climber by a series of intricate moves which would involve the woman bypassing the middle climber and going on to the west side of the rock face, climb and reach the top, wait for the first climber, kill him and go back the same way on to the east side and below the 2nd climber! He is able to prove that this method could work but the woman doesn't budge from her story that she didn't kill him.
That leaves Lt. Boruvka to come up with another ingenious theory, which again is tested out by the students of the climbing academy to arrive at the way the murder was committed which would indirectly point to the only person who could have committed it! The solution is pretty complicated and a bit of mountain climbing knowledge would go a long way in understanding the beauty of the solution but even otherwise, it can be enjoyed for its setting and one of the unique impossible crime situations that the reader can ever encounter.

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