Case Closed: Nothing Adds Up Until You Overthrow the System
Three Percent, June 1, 2020
Originally written in 2006 and translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker in 2010, Case Closed is, ostensibly, a detective novel. But one in which the clues don’t seem to add up, the resolution is unsatisfying by typical standards, and one of the crimes being investigated is never clearly articulated.
We know from the jump that we’re in for some sort of game, given that chapter 1 is a notated chess game:
1 e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Bc4 d6 4. nf3 Bg4 5. O-O Qd7 6. d4 g5 7. c3 Nc6 [...] 27. hxg3 hxg3+ 28. Kg1 rgh8 29. Bf3 Qxg4
(I assume this is all accurate and playable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was at least partially nonsense.)
Then, in chapter 2, we have two major events that more or less drive the book itself. First off, Viktor Dyk (winning dick as in detective?), a retiree and main player in this novel, gives a young woman inaccurate directions to the Academy of Fine Arts (we find out later that she’s raped as a result) and then we hear about Mrs. Horak’s death. Or at least part of it.
“Have you heard? Mrs. Horak was hit by a car.”
“No! Is it serious?”
“Serious or not, she’s dead from it, dead as a doornail. Supposedly she staggered home, opened the door, and bang! She was gone. She couldn’t breathe, poor thing, and her eyes were wide open.”
To give you a real sense of the whiplash-inducing, playful tone of this book, here’s a bit from the same chapter about Viktor Dyk:
Dyk had a habit of pulling pronouncements out of his noggin and dressing them up with fraudulent, usually biblical, sources. Long ago he had come to realize that repeating what someone else had once said was considered the utmost expression of intelligence in his country. At one time, in the days when he still collected beetles, he used to declare ownership of his pronouncements (“as I always say”), but he never got any response except an awkward smile. Until one day it occurred to him to add “Book of Ruth 6:4″—and lo and behold, eyes lighted up all around, women’s in appreciation, men’s in envy. Since then, he had done so every time.
Fast-forward to chapter 6, and we maybe get introduced to the mystery that Inspector Lebeda (introduced in chapter 8) is going to be investigating.
Mrs. Horak’s death wasn’t a result of the accident. The car was innocent. It barely grazed her. Mrs. Horak fell down, banged her knee, tore her stocking. Ranting and limping, she made her way home. Once there, she turned on the gas, opened the oven, and stuck her head in. They say that women, particularly in old age, rarely resort to suicide, and when they do, they think long and hard about their decision and as a rule they choose less radical means than men do. But statistics provide only an imperfect picture of an individual’s life: in this respect Mrs. Horak defied sexual categorization. She’d had enough, she’d had it up to here. [...] We shall see later whether and to what extent these statistical incongruities influence the course of our story and the fates of our other protagonists. In any case it spurred the firemen to call the police without delay. Which they would have done regardless; this, however, enables us to evoke a promising atmosphere of tension, thereby strengthening the dramatic line. The firemen may not give a damn, but our readers certainly do.
One of the difficulties in describing this incredibly fun, somewhat enigmatic book is that it is like a chess game. There are so many people, so many moves, so many positions on the board. For instance, Lebeda’s main case at the start of the book is called “Damage of Advertising Surfaces in Public Spaces,” in which he’s trying to figure out which groups are defiling the “city’s metro and streetside postering surfaces [...] with signs of an active anticapitalist, anti-advertising campaign—whole posters x’d out in black, as well as graffiti both general (Down with advertising, Ads lie, Citizen, don’t be an ass, Pay the unemployed) and specific (Women are not goods, This washer will wash your brain, Bud won’t make you wiser)” The interpretation of these “defacings” is either a key to untangling the mysteries of this book, or a total red herring.
And suddenly, I’ve returned to the beginning of my take on this book: Detective novels in which the clues are misleading, maybe not actually clues at all, contradictory, and filled with digressions are exactly the sort of detective novels I am drawn to. Post-modern puzzle books are totally my jam.