Breaking the Commandments : SINS FOR FATHER KNOX <i> by Josef Skvorecky (W. W. Norton: $17.95; 288 pp.) </i>
There lived in England from 1888 to 1957 an occasional mystery novelist and full-time Anglican priest (later converted to Catholicism) with the wonderful name of Ronald Arbuthnot Knox, who issued 10 tongue-in-cheek commandments that set forth what is and is not permissible in the crime or detective story.
Sixty years have passed since the promulgation of this remarkable codex, and it’s doubtful that any of today’s crime novelists have ever paid it the slightest heed--or even heard of it, for that matter. Comes now Josef Skvorecky, late of Czechoslovakia, who systematically sets out to break each of Father Knox’s commandments. The results, I regret to say, are just awful.
It was Skvorecky’s inspiration to write 10 short stories, each of them violating one of the priest’s rules, hence the title, “Sins for Father Knox.” While this is a pretty enough conceit, the effect is so arch and contrived that, while reading the stories, what sprang to mind time and again was the late Edmund Wilson’s fretful question: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”
Skvorecky now lives in Toronto and writes in his native Czech. He has written seven novels and two works of nonfiction, a very respectable body of work, so it seems only proper to mention that the translator of his stories is Kaca Polackova Henley. When meting out critical praise or blame, compassion demands that translators get their full share.
The recurring character, who helps break all of Father Knox’s rules in the stories, is Eve Adam, a saucy minx and nightclub blues singer from Prague, whose adventures take her to Sweden, Paris, New York, Berkeley, Italy and, finally, back to Prague. She possesses an almost unschooled but extremely logical mind along with an unusually observant eye. And she uses both mind and eye to solve various crimes, including murder, that baffle the local police who are never as swift as the heroine with the cute biblical name.
So what we have is essentially the standard British formula that employs a gifted amateur to help the local bumbling constabulary with its inquiries. But in each story, Skvorecky stops the action, what there is of it, to insert a cautionary boxed note that, in one story, reads:
“Now you have everything you need to deduce how the murder was committed, if not by whom--and of course the sin against Father Knox is more or less evident. But no guessing!”
Only those with wills of iron are going to refrain from skipping to the last page of this story to find out who done it. As for all those thou-shalt-not rules that Father Knox, a rather merry fellow, preached against and Skvorecky has so sedulously violated, they can be quickly summarized:
1. Mention the criminal early on.
2. No supernatural stuff.
3. Only one secret passage per story.
4. No arcane poisons or long scientific explanations.
5. No Chinamen.
6. No marvelous intuition or miraculous accidents.
7. The detective never does it.
8. No clues that aren’t immediately revealed to the reader.
9. The detective’s dumb friend can’t conceal his thoughts, nor can he be noticeably dumber than the detective.
10. No twins or doubles.
Although Skvorecky supplies no dates, his 10 stories all take place in what seems to be either the very late ‘60s or very early ‘70s. This is deduced from references to the Weathermen, who had not yet evolved into the Weather Underground, and also from the miniskirts that Eve Adam invariably wears.
But if it weren’t for these clues and the occasional reference to politics in Czechoslovakia, the stories might have been set in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The sex is restrained. The dialogue almost pristine, if coy, and the slang is curiously dated. I suspect that Skvorecky suffers from an acute case of the dread Hammett-Chandler-McCoy syndrome that is further complicated by a mild strain of Christie miasma, a deadly combination.
Here’s a specimen of the H-C-M syndrome: “The girl took a pack of cigarettes out of her sequinned handbag, decorated her face with one, hesitated, and offered one to the gentleman who was about to be murdered: ‘Have a coffin nail?’ ”
And a specimen of the Christie miasma:
(4/ x /+2/ y /-4)(// y /-1/+/ y /-1+/x/)
This formula is not only the story’s principal clue, but it’s also accompanied by yet another boxed set of instructions from the author, which begins: “And now you know who abducted Ann Bradstreet. . . . Or at least you know which commandment was violated.”
I’m not sure how Skvorecky expects his readers to react to all this--with a pleasing frisson of shock followed by a gasp of admiration? What I experienced was a bout of ho-hummery, probably because I was hoping his rule-breaking exercises would be both fascinating and comprehensible. Instead, I found them tedious and opaque.
And that’s a pity because the stories have a sound and even enviable premise: A beautiful and sexy Czech blues singer solves crimes that the police of several nations can’t solve. But Skvorecky has burdened his premise with an overweight gimmick--the breaking of Father Knox’s whimsical rules--and the gimmick finally crushes the premise.
And this, too, is a pity because there is little more satisfying to the reader and writer of crime stories than a formula turned inside out. Father Knox perhaps should have written one additional commandment, the 11th, which might read: “If you’re sure you’re good enough to get away with it, ignore the other 10.”