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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Two Murders in my Double Life

Josef Škvorecký

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Title: Two Murders in my Double Life
Author: Josef Skvorecky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996
Length: 175 pages
Availability: Two Murders in my Double Life - US
Two Murders in my Double Life - UK
Two Murders in my Double Life - Canada
Deux meurtres dans ma double vie - France
  • First published in Canada in 1999
  • Published in the US in 2001
  • This is the first (and so far only) book Skvorecky wrote in English, rather than Czech

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining, breezy read -- but leaves a sour aftertaste

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times B- 29/5/2001 Merle Rubin
The NY Times B 8/6/2001 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/5/2001 Neil Bermel
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2001 Christy Post
The Washington Post B 6/5/2001 James Hynes

  Review Consensus:

  Intriguing, but lacking some depth

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n odd book: playful in form, ruefully comic in tone, tragic in content. (...) Skvorecky is content to tell rather than show, to deliver wry, rather offhand comments rather than probe in depth. And so, we are left with a wistful, querulous plaint instead of a fully imagined work of fiction." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "In cutting back and forth between these two plots, Mr. Skvorecky tries to underscore the differences between the two worlds Smiricky inhabits, but this narrative strategy works to undermine, rather than build, suspense. (...) Matters are not helped by Mr. Skvorecky's lumbering prose (...) or his nervous habit of continually recapitulating events." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "More irritating, Skvorecky is extremely protective of his characters, leaving nothing for the reader to decide or interpret. (...) In a novel about the elusive nature of right and wrong, these excessive protestations rob the story of much of its impact. Maybe the college professor is a bit too anxious lest we, his less gifted students, fail to understand the moral of the tale?" - Neil Bermel, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Two Murders in My Double Life is witty and compelling to the end, a very smart, funny, and utterly engrossing book." - Christy Post, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "This brief and briskly written novel (...) suffers under a handicap, namely the memory of Skvorecky's earlier work (.....) It reads like a distilled version of The Engineer of Human Souls, with all the fun and passion boiled away, leaving something angrier and much more bitter." - James Hynes, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Two Murders in my Double Life is narrated by a Skvorecky-like Czech émigré, a mystery writer and professor at Edenvale College. (Skvorecky taught at the University of Toronto's Erindale College, and he has set previous novels in the same locale.) The narrator has, like the author, a double life: his present Canadian one, and his Czech past. There is some overlap. The Czech past is certainly never left behind, but for most of those in his new, second life -- his students and colleagues, especially -- it is distant, unfathomable, and of little interest.
       Edenvale is less idyllic than its name might suggest, and not just because of the murders promised in the book's title. Skvorecky can't resist lampooning academic life while he is at it, though most of the time he is too blunt to truly amuse and the simplistic caricatures distract from what he is trying to convey. Still, his old-world indifference to political correctness occasionally has its charm.
       A murder is committed: Raymond Hammett is dispatched. Yes "Raymond Hammett" -- though, surprisingly, no Dashiell Chandlers appear. What readers do get is a Police Sergeant Dorothy Sayers (assigned to the case, and a student of the narrator), as well as characters such as Professor Margery Allingham, Cotton Mathers, and Robert Browning, among others. Skvorecky's odd name-game seems to serve little purpose; it certainly eluded us (though it proved quite annoying).
       (The name-game, in another guise, crops up elsewhere: coyly Skvorecky introduces, among others, prominent figures such as Vaclav Havel (the playwright and Czech president) and Milos Forman (the Academy Award winning film director), describing them at length without actually ever dropping their names. But he has no qualms about naming his "lazy cousin Arnost Lustig" (also a well-known author).
       He offers a final variation of his name-game when, for example, he discusses the case of "a famous woman writer of the former German Democratic Republic" who was exposed as a sometime Stasi collaborator: he calls her Gertrude (not even deigning to invent a last name for her), despite the fact that he is clearly talking about Christa Wolf.
       This muddle of real names (or at least names from other fictions) for invented people, invented names for real people, and no names for real people is a ridiculous irritant, and it is beyond comprehension what Skvorecky could have been thinking here. It also takes one's attention away from the matters and murders at hand -- as is demonstrated also by our own digression here.)
       There are a variety of clues to Hammett's murder, and a number of suspects. The narrator is kept on top of things in part by sergeant-student Sayers, who at the same time as she tries to find Hammett's murderer is trying to satisfactorily work her way through the Mystery of the Locked Room, a classic detective fiction exercise. Eventually the narrator pieces together the puzzle.
       The murder of Hammett is, however, just one of the crimes perpetrated here. The other involves the narrator's former life -- and specifically that of his wife, Sidonia. A newsweekly, Kill Kommunism !, printed a List of those who had allegedly formerly been informers of the Czech state police (the StB) during the period of communist rule. Among many prominent names on the List is also Sidonia's.
       The StB had indeed opened a file on her, but her assistance was trivial and minimal. No matter: now, in the post-communist years, she gets tarred with same brush. A weak-willed soul she takes it to heart and the obscene accusation eventually breaks her. She drowns first her sorrows and then herself in alcohol.
       Sidonia is a victim of what Skvorecky calls "total crime", representative of the soul of a nation that has been murdered. It is a crime that continues even after the regime responsible for it has been toppled: the guilt and destruction linger and continue to rot away what was left of that soul.
       The narrator is largely an observer. He meddles in both crimes, but to little effect. Aspects affect him personally, and he is particularly troubled by his wife's decline, but he is unable to set things right.
       At the end both crimes have been "solved": the perpetrators are known, as are their motives and what exactly they did. But Skvorecky's ending does not offer the complete satisfaction of the mystery novel with its neat resolution. He intentionally leaves this one ragged -- leaving a sour aftertaste.

       Two Murders in my Double Life meanders along fitfully, crossing back and forth between past and present, Czechoslovakia and Edenvale, murder and murder. Skvorecky writes fairly well, though the odd mixture of campus novel, mystery story, memoir, and occasional diatribe doesn't always go together well. Still, for the most part it reads well, and the main story-lines are both fairly interesting (though Skvorecky does with neither as much as he might).
       A few things beside the name-games also stand out in a negative manner. This is the first (and only) fiction Skvorecky has written in English rather than his native Czech, and the writing has some rough edges. It is unclear whether or not he is being willfully obtuse, but there are quite a few odd expressions and misused words. "An American specialty called cookies", for example, seems a bizarre way of putting it. And Skvorecky certainly knows what a Pischingertorte is (a delectable treat indeed), and he should certainly know that it can not reasonably be described as "a German tart". Revealing a secret, even one one has sworn on a bible to keep, has nothing to do with perjury. And so on.
       There is also the matter of politics. Academia's left-leaning liberalism clearly disturbs him. He also takes some vaguely valid points to surprising extremes:

       Anyway, the ancient principle of hearing both sides can easily be circumvented by film editing. Pinko U.S. television would show Reagan giving a speech, but the editing would not permit him to finish his sentence, so that the American president appeared confused (.....) The method was related to the trick known in literature as quoting out of context.
       Emotion seems to have gotten the better of Skvorecky in this paragraph (and it is not the only one). We are not familiar with "pinko U.S. television", though presumably this is his quaint way of referring to the apparently biased liberal networks that dominate American news coverage -- quaint terminology that should have gone out with McCarthy. Crude tactics such as cutting anyone off in mid-sentence are fairly transparent: there is no way to edit around that, so it seems an unlikely device to have been employed in trying to make Reagan appear confused. And surely little effort was needed to make him look like the dotard that he was in any case. Indeed, the fact that Reagan actually is mentally severely impaired is no longer in any doubt, the only question being when he actually started getting "confused" (and there seems little doubt -- at least in our opinion -- that that already occurred during his presidency, at the latest after the failed assassination attempt). Finally, cutting off quotes in mid-sentence doesn't really seem that much like quoting out of context -- a trick known not just in literature but also in film editing as "quoting out of context".

       Two Murders in my Double Life isn't terribly polished, or a truly satisfactory mystery, but there is enough to hold one's interest for the span of the relatively short book. Skvorecky can irritate and annoy, but he has some clever things to say as well. He portrays Czech-émigré life (and Czech-specific problems) well, though he does try to be too clever for his own good at times (especially with the familiar and less familiar references to individuals and incidents). There are some good ideas here, and some amusing scenes -- as well as some poignant ones. The novel is a little thin, a little rough, but still of some interest.

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Two Murders in my Double Life: Reviews: Josef Škvorecký: Other books by Josef Škvorecký under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Josef Škvorecký fled his native country for Canada decades ago. He has written many novels and has received numerous awards, including the Neustadt International Prixe for Literature.

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