The Guilty Party: A Double Novel of Czech Complicity and Canadian Frivolity

Joseph Skvorecky’s Two Murders in My Double Life basically does what it says on the tin. It’s two intertwined stories in two different genres, one per country. There’s a college satire set in Canada, full of bed-hopping and lady sleuths; and then there’s a dark, sad, realistic story of the aftermath of totalitarianism, in which a Czech newspaper publishes a list of those who informed during the Communist years. Hingeing the two tales together is an emigre professor whose students get mixed up in the Canadian mystery while his wife is named in the Czech list.

It didn’t entirely work for me, largely because the Czech story is just so much more compelling than the flimsy Canadian satire. The Czech story is simply heartbreaking from start to finish. There may have been some subterranean resonances between that story and the Canadian tale, but the two stories are mostly played as contrast. The contrast itself is powerful–Skvorecky really captures what it’s like to live among people for whom the tragedies and moral crises of your personal life are just snippets on the evening news–but the Canadian story is so weak and pointless that it’s impossible to really care about its resolution. I was left with a sort of muffled fury, which is good, but also a sense that I’d wasted a decent amount of reading time on something which is maybe even intentionally tedious and cliched.

It’s a short book, and what’s good in it is good enough that I do recommend it, but be aware that there’s no point (I think) in reading it for college satire; or even for a sharp genre contrast of the kind of chiming, puzzle-box mystery where all the pieces fall into place and one guilty party is picked out from the crowd of innocents, vs. the realist story of universal guilt and complicity. For that contrast to work as well as I wanted it to, the puzzle mystery has to be tighter and more pristine.

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