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About the Author
Josef Skvorecky is the author of The Bass Saxophone and The Engineer of Human Souls, among other works. He is the recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and Canada’s Governor General’s Award. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, and Venice, Florida.
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Two Murders in My Double Life
By Josef ?kvoreck
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2001 Josef ?kvoreck
All rights reserved.
Two of the Many Girls in My Life, and My Wife
From my office, through the open door, I could see into his office across the hall. There he was, the star of our college, grooming his Clark Gable–like moustache with a small comb and looking into a hand mirror. Then my view was obstructed by a girl's back in a Gucci jacket. Not that I am so knowledgeable about women's fashion, but when I commented on her great looks in the new outfit, she just smiled and said, "Gucci." Some girls at our college would resent my male admiration, but she was above parroting current wisdoms. Her blond hair was freshly coiffured and shiny, and reached her shoulders in lovely waves. Her name was Candace Quentin. She was our college beauty queen.
I managed to get a glimpse of her elegant legs beneath a black, knee-length skirt, and then all these objects of interest vanished behind the closing door. A sign in gold on black announced that the room was the sanctuary of Professor James F. Cooper.
This was very unusual. Ever since the college had distributed the "Sexual Harassment" pamphlet for the edification of male staff members, office doors (unless a woman sat behind them) remained ajar. Whenever some girl student thoughtlessly shut the door behind her in a male professor's office, the professor immediately opened it again.
Cooper did no such thing. I looked at my wristwatch, and kept track of the time she was in there. I glanced over at brief intervals for a whole quarter of an hour. The door stayed shut. After eighteen minutes a bespectacled student, his white, serious face filled with apprehension, appeared in the hall and knocked at the door, very timidly. Cooper probably could not hear the pianissimo knock, and his door did not open. With extreme caution, the bespectacled student turned the knob slowly, and peered in. Then, in a loud whisper, he blurted, "Oh, I beg your pardon, Professor Cooper! I'll come later." From behind the door, Cooper commanded, "Come tomorrow, Browning!" The young man murmured, "Yes, professor!" and meekly withdrew. During this curt exchange I did not manage to get even a peep at what was going on inside. I was curious, because Cooper had always been very punctilious about observing the rules laid down in the harassment brochure. I continued to consult my watch at brief intervals for the next ten minutes.
Suddenly Police Sergeant Dorothy Sayers barged in unannounced, apparently hoping against hope that she would be able to corner me in my office.
As a rule, I was not to be found there. I preferred to hold tutorials at the college pub, the Lame Duck. But this time Sayers was lucky, and immediately pressed her advantage. Instead of watching Cooper's gold-and-black name plate, I was forced to give part of my attention to this policewoman, who was also my student. Now and then I tried to squint over her shoulder at Cooper's closed door. Just as she finished delivering her report about her "Locked Room" project — with the words "I'm at my wits' end, professor!" — the door flew open and out came a teary Candace Quentin. She actually ran out and down the hall without closing the door. I had never seen her like that: she was a proud, self-assured goddess. Was it possible that her tears were the result of some amorous disappointment? With the user of a moustache comb? Come on!
It turned out later, as I delved into the mystery of our local murder, that I was right to doubt that interpretation.
Inside, I could see Cooper now; he picked up a journal and stuck a pipe into his mouth. The pipe remained unlit, because under pressure from environmentalist groups the Dean had declared our building "smoke-free."
Baffled by the mystery of the closed door, my mind wandered back to Police Sergeant Sayers as she droned on about the Mystery of the Locked Room. This was a topic I'd given to students of my seminar on writing detective stories; it called for devising and solving the problem of a murder victim found in a room from which the perpetrator has inexplicably vanished, but which is locked on the inside, with the key still in the lock.
* * *
The two girls, Quentin and Sayers, had enrolled in my seminar for different reasons, misguided in each case. Quentin assumed that my seminar would be a Mickey-Mouse course, and so she chose it over "Shakespeare's Historical Plays" or "Restoration Comedy," in both of which the students had to write four papers per semester, and a scholarly approach was required and enforced. All Quentin needed was one more English course, because her major was science, or to be precise, mathematics, which she studied with Cooper across the hall. Sayers, on the other hand, took my course on the pretext of adding an original perspective to her courses in criminology, which she took for her career in police work. In actual fact Sayers was in love with me.
The two girls — I call them girls, because even though I have been told over and over that they are women, to me they still look like girls — were as different as their reasons for choosing my seminar. Quentin was a glorious blonde, the daughter of a rich entrepreneur; Sayers, on the other hand, was a sergeant in the Mississauga police department, who regularly jogged to the college from the precinct station because she was overweight.
Only slightly overweight — but it struck me that a conviction of one's own obesity was a widespread female malady. Even the slender Quentin, when once I found her in the cafeteria eating fat-free yogurt, had told me that she had to shed five pounds. Why she had to do such an unnecessary thing was a mystery to me. I figured that shedding five pounds would make Candace almost skeletal.
Sayers was unequivocally after me; she was not bothered by the fact that I was married, and could not understand why the existence of a wife should be an obstacle. As for my wife, she easily recognized Queen Candace of Edenvale College in the heroine of the little crime novel I was writing at the time, but she wasn't bothered either. She liked to listen to my stories about my maiden students, and I was fond of telling them. My wife, Sidonia, was a wise woman, and in spite of her old-fashioned name she held quite modern views. Or, rather, she was just wise. She saw through me like a piece of glass, and knew that I did not take my female students seriously as sexual objects. The Professor of Women's Studies, Ann Kate Boleyn, did not understand me, and was very suspicious: I had caught that scholar several times watching me when I was watching girls. But Sidonia knew that although I wrote only crime stories, I was a poet at heart, like my hero Raymond Chandler, and pretty young females were for me, well, not quite what Professor Boleyn thought. It was just that — to echo Hemingway's hero in "Soldier's Home" — they made such a nice pattern. That's why Sidonia didn't mind even the lovesick attacks of Sergeant Sayers, about which I kept her posted, because she liked hearing about them. She knew what she knew about me.
* * *
And I knew what I knew about her. I knew how it had been, forty years before in Prague, when she told me that an agent of the state police, the StB, was pestering her. That was how I knew what I knew about the List of StB informers, which after the fall of Communism was clandestinely leaked to the naive, or more likely vile, Mr. Mrkvicka, and printed in his weekly paper Kill Kommunism! Nor was it a mystery to me why the agents leaked the List.
Unfortunately, my wife was on the List, and despite her wisdom, she succumbed to a deadly depression. The trumped-up charges came shortly after the world-renowned playwright, who was now president of the country, had awarded her the Order of the White Lion, for her twenty-five years of publishing drudgery in Toronto. The publishing house was her brainchild; she had rescued from oblivion many manuscripts that had been silenced by Communist censors in Prague. Among them were those the world-renowned playwright had kept producing — between incarcerations.
Due to historical events, however, Sidonia's publishing activities eventually became redundant. Then Mr. Mrkvicka subjected them to an unexpected interpretation. In an article called "Put Your Cards on the Table, Mrs. Sidonia!" he divulged her secret career: she had been a lifelong agent of the StB; in fact, she had married me on orders from her StB bosses, to keep me under round-the-clock surveillance. As a writer who kept concocting crime stories modelled on American thrillers, I was regarded by the Party with keen suspicion. For that same reason, on orders from above, Sidonia drew me with her into exile in Canada, where she launched her publishing business: a front, of course, so that the StB would have control over emigré publications. Her publishing lists were always submitted to the Central Committee of the Communist Party for their okay. The article further revealed that Sidonia flew regularly and secretly to Prague, to report to her StB bosses.
Czech wisdom has it that there is a grain of truth in every piece of nonsense. According to this maxim, the slight admixture of the genuine gives even the boldest feats of imagination the ring of authenticity. Anonymous letters soon began to arrive, recommending that Sidonia leave Toronto. After Mr. Mrkvicka's revelations and the publication of several addenda to the evil lore of the List in his paper, Sidonia's old Prague friend Julie wrote us that the only way to disprove the accusation was to sue the Ministry of the Interior. We were waiting at the airport before boarding a plane to Prague when Jirousek, a member of the Toronto branch of the Association of Political Prisoners of the Communist Regime, approached us and rolled up his sleeve to show Sidonia scars from cigarette burns on his forearm. "This is how the StB worked me over," he said, "while you were working for them."
I thought Sidonia would die of shame. However, by incessantly buzzing into her ear throughout the flight to Prague that I knew what I knew about it, and that it was all lies, I kept her alive.
In the Prague Film Club we ran into an obscure actor called Emil Konrad, who after the Velvet Revolution had appointed himself "Earl" and added "of Hradek" to his surname. He almost finished Sidonia off when he stage-whispered to his female companion for everybody to hear, "Why doesn't this StB moll stay put in Canada?" Looking at Sidonia, as she sat next to the Earl at the bar, the image of Poe's murdered Marie Roget, drawn from the Seine, occurred to me for the first time. Her face had just the same deadly pallor as that of the poor, raped and murdered cigar girl from Mr. Anderson's store, on whom Poe modelled the French heroine of his gruesome story.
Naturally, my colleagues at Edenvale College had no idea what was going on. We lived in two very different worlds, and they only knew their own.CHAPTER 2
How I Gave a Lift to One of the Girls in My Life
Cooper was the star of our college because he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but there was no Nobel Prize for mathematics, and Cooper's discovery touched on physics only marginally, and so he failed to gain the honour. But even without the prize he made the college and himself world-famous, on account of something named "Cooper's theorem," which was well beyond my mathematical expertise. I thought it had something to do with putting the acausality of microcosm back into the causal nexus, or perhaps it caught Einstein — or was it Darwin? — in some error. In any case the result was, again for reasons incomprehensible to me, that Cooper became for a short time a hero to the Christian fundamentalists.
He had always been a windbag, but his global fame blew him up to the size of a Goodyear blimp. I once addressed him in the faculty club with a seriously meant question (though I framed my inquiry as a joke) of whether he intended to fail our college's prettiest student on the grounds of her "lookism" (the feminist sin of caring for one's looks). In my class, I protested, she was very capable and industrious, despite being beautiful. He pompously responded that feminist categories had nothing to do with the fact that Quentin was a mathematical illiterate, and he saw no reason why, if she deserved it, he shouldn't give her an F.
Once, over a whisky, my colleague McMountain told me that, according to his students, the "F" in James F. Cooper didn't just stand for "Fenimore." McMountain's speciality was CanLit and in the past ten years — the length of my acquaintance with him — he had lived with three or four budding Canadian female novelists, who invariably became the subjects of his seminars. About the life and work of two of them he wrote scholarly books, and despite an impressive critical apparatus they were more than readable, their attraction due to inside information and a fast-paced style based on the American hard-boiled school. However, since few CanLit critics were conversant with the stylistic theories of that more-than-usually-bloody faction of American letters, McMountain was highly praised as a stylistic innovator of scholarly writing.
But I had my doubts about that knowing interpretation of Cooper's middle initial. Our mathematical star did not strike me as a violator of young virgins. Or maybe he just kept it a well-hidden secret; I remembered Candace's tears. Rumours also went around that Cooper was queer, but no names of intimate friends of that kind were mentioned.
* * *
My chat with Cooper in the faculty club, during which I made my joke about his grading intentions, reminded me that only a few days before I had described Candace's tears to Wendy McFarlane, my favourite Irish redhead and private college spy. She insisted that I had misinterpreted what I saw. "Your mistake," Wendy told me. "She has nothing going on with Cooper. F-13 gave her Fs for all her papers, and it looks like she is going to fail his course unless she cheats successfully — very successfully, that is — on her final exam. Which is as likely as me becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury." "F-13" was Cooper's nickname, after the popular horror films, all called Friday the 13th, which dealt with the horrible deaths of female college students.
"Why would she care so much?" I wondered. I knew from a recent poll in Maclean's that Candace's father was the forty-ninth richest man in Canada, and so she did not depend on good grades for a student loan.
"Quentin wants to get into law school," Wendy explained, "and she'll have to take an exam in math. If F-13 gives her a final F, they won't even let her try."
That seemed reasonable. But why did she close the door of Cooper's office, a strict no-no at Edenvale? Wasn't it perhaps Wendy who was mistaken about the beauty queen and her math instructor? Was Candace weeping because the windbag had told her, probably in the same tone he used with me at the faculty club, that as far as her grades were concerned there was nothing to discuss? But with what arguments could she possibly appeal to him, when Fs on all her previous papers hinted clearly what his response would be? Candace, the cool princess of Edenvale?
"Beats me," said Wendy, "but it was certainly not what your dirty mind made you think, professor. I know Candace better than anyone. From church."
My favourite freckled spy was studying to be an Anglican priestess.
* * *
That night, as we were driving home from Professor Kelly's party, another strange scene was played out. As always, Kelly overindulged. Sidonia did likewise, though not as much, and her reasons were better than his. Kelly was fond of whisky, pure and simple, and liked to give lavish parties (financed by his wealthy wife) for the sake of overindulging in convivial company. Over the years, parties at Kelly's had become monotonous, with nothing remarkable about them except the free access to spirits. This time, however, the foreseeable event had an unexpected sequel, which stuck in my mind.
It was shortly after midnight, and the night was standard horror-movie footage. Thunder, lightning, and ferocious wind. We were passing Professor Mather's Victorian mansion, and I remarked to my wife that it loomed like the Bates motel in Psycho. Sidonia just muttered something about everything reminding me of the movies, and on that point she was right. A long, long time ago my father managed the local cinema in Kostelec, and I practically spent my youth in his movie house. The experiences of youth determine the rest of our lives. I'm not sure how valid this aperçu is for others, but it fully applies to me.
Suddenly, a girl's figure wavered into the beam of my headlights and I stepped on the brakes. She turned, putting up her hand to shade her eyes from the glare. It was Quentin. I opened my door and stepped outside into the rain.
"My God, what are you doing here?"
She stared at me wildly, and perhaps because everything reminded me of the movies, I saw the face of the heroine of the latest installment of Friday the 13th, having just escaped the knife of the indestructible killer.
I opened the rear door of the car for her and without a second's hesitation she jumped in. Once safely tucked into the back seat, she relaxed, and the horror, or whatever it was, vanished from her face. Perhaps it was only dismay over the wetting of her freshly styled hair.
Excerpted from Two Murders in My Double Life by Josef ?kvoreck. Copyright © 2001 Josef ?kvoreck. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Before the Story Begins,
CHAPTER ONE: Two of the Many Girls in My Life, and My Wife,
CHAPTER TWO: How I Gave a Lift to One of the Girls in My Life,
CHAPTER THREE: What My Clever But Sad Wife Noticed in the Common Room of Edenvale College,
CHAPTER FOUR: How I Failed Sidonia When She Needed Me Most,
CHAPTER FIVE: How Sergeant Sayers Abandoned Her Intention to Follow in Poe's Footsteps, and Decided in Favour of Uncle Abner,
CHAPTER SIX: What Hammett Did Alone at Home, and How I Remembered a Conference,
CHAPTER SEVEN: About the Successful Math Exams, and How Sidonia Almost Died,
CHAPTER EIGHT: Sayers Betrays an Official Secret, and Sidonia Receives an Honorary Degree,
CHAPTER NINE: Cleopatra's Film, and What Oskar Told Me,
CHAPTER TEN: The Opinion Poll of the Prague Literary Weekly, and the Case Begins to Clear Up, At Least for Me,
CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Two Murders,
Books by Josef kvoreck,