Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Case of The Horizontal Trajectory - Josef Skvorecky

Name of the story: The Case of The Horizontal Trajectory

Author: Josef Skvorecky
Source: The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka: Detective Tales
Story Number: 5
Josef Skvorecky, a Czechoslovakian author died in Canada yesterday at the age of 87. So I’m taking a detour from my scheduled list and am featuring this story as a tribute to this author.
4 story collections from this Czechoslovakian author are of paramount importance to the detective fiction genre. He devoted an entire collection of stories to breaking the decalogue rules of detective fiction set up by Ronald Knox in his seminal work ’Sins for Father Knox’. The other three collections are more traditional and he blends the travails of a family man, matters of the heart and glimpses of life in Czechoslovakia during the grim war time into intricately plotted detective stories. The Mournful Demeanour consists of four intricately plotted locked room or impossible crime mysteries along with 8 more stories. I’ve picked the more traditional locked room mystery of the lot for this post.
An 85 year old woman is found dead inside a locked room with a knife having pierced her eye and the death resulting more due to the shock at her age than the knife wound. The woman is found on her back with one hand on the wall as though she was trying to reach for the switch on the wall to turn off the light. The other hand is pointing to the window which is quite far away from her bed as though indicating that the fatal knife was hurled through that window. And there is a strange man (the neighbor) who is peering in through the window as though checking whether the knife thrust was successful. This is the scene which confronts Lt. Boruvka of the Prague police when he enters the room after the locked door is forced open. No one could have escaped from the room as several witnesses were stationed right outside the door when the old lady utters her last gasp.
The only likely source for the knife looks like the open window but Boruvka, even without doing the math knows that the possibility of throwing such a hard object from such a far off distance and hitting the eye looks high unlikely. In order to prove his theory, he provides all the required parameters to his daughter with the mathematical formula required to arrive at the solution (force required to fire a bullet which weights half a KG) as a punishment for one her infractions. He knows very well that her daughter doesn’t have the skills to solve but he is hoping that she would take this problem to her professor and get it solved from him, which she does. The solution coincides with his thought process that it wasn’t practical.
So how exactly was the murder committed? Who is the culprit? Lt. Boruvka solves it by applying the process of logical deduction and the principle of human nature to arrive at a most satisfactory conclusion.


  1. I have only read Sins for Father Knox, which was the usual mixed bag you should come to expect from most short story collections, but the overarching theme was an original one and I think he was the first mystery writer who blatantly cheated while playing fair. You have to give him props for that!

    Anyway, thanks for this enticing review and I will definitely pick up The Mournful Demeanor of Lt. Boruvka one of these days.

  2. Mournful Demeanour is also a mixed bag but it is certainly better than his two other collections - 'End of' & 'Return of'. The 4 locked room stories are elegant and is certainly worth reading. Some of the other stories also involve some good detective work.