Noir is the new black in Prague

Pavel Mandys, photo: David Vaughan

If you enjoy noir crime stories with their troubled, ambivalent heroes and creepy, underworld settings, you are in for a treat. Akashic Books in New York have just added Prague to their award-winning series of original noir anthologies. The collection includes some of the biggest names in Czech contemporary fiction and is full of surprises, offering us a Prague that lurches deliciously from the magical to the seedy, from a misty past to a hi-tech future. The book had its Prague launch a few days ago in the Globe English-language bookstore, and David Vaughan took the opportunity to talk to the editor Pavel Mandys and some of the writers who contributed to the book.

Pavel Mandys,  photo: David Vaughan
I am standing with Pavel outside the Globe bookstore in Prague’s New Town which despite its name goes back to the fourteenth century. It’s rather apt that we’re here for the launch of the book, because this is a collection of crime stories set in Prague, several of which are set very close to where we are standing now.

“Yes. It’s part of a larger series published by the Brooklyn-based publishing house Akashic books. Prague Noir is the ninety-second. The topic of the series is to set the crime short stories into particular places.”

So it really has to be an identifiable place in the city.

“Yes. It should be. It’s one of the conditions of every short story. The second one is that the authors should have some connection to the city.”

And you were commissioned as the editor, so I assume that you started approaching various Czech writers that were either from Prague or had written about the city and asked them to write something.

“Yes, and since the history and level of Czech crime writing is not very long and not very high, I also asked some mainstream authors, who are not writing crime generally, but some of whose novels and short stories are a little bit connected to the crime genre – like Kateřina Tučková or Petra Soukupová or Chaim Cigan. And they agreed. So the collection is split between the typical crime writers with typical detective or crime short stories and between short stories which are a little bit outside of the crime genre.”

You have stories that look at family relations or drift into science-fiction or the surreal…

“I tried to smuggle the mainstream writers a little bit into the series. In the Czech reviews some reviewers say that it’s less noir and less crime than they expected, but two reviews recently published in the USA appreciated that some of the stories are far from the crime genre.”

In the introduction you write about the reasons why there is not a big tradition of detective fiction in the Czech context.

“It’s because of the communist regime. We don’t have any private eyes, so in crime fiction only a policeman could resolve a crime or a murder. And the policeman was part of the regime ideology. So every policeman should be the good-looking one and he should solve the mystery with no problems. But the general tradition of crime fiction since Raymond Chandler is far different from this idealistic one…”

On the other hand, from today’s perspective the hero of a Czech detective story who is in the secret police is not a positive figure. So you could say that it is an interesting opportunity to write noir fiction with an anti-hero who is working with the regime.

Photo: Akashic Books
“Yes, today’s writers have this chance to find some story about the secret police, about the communist regime and so on, but it’s not the tradition. Our tradition is a bit conservative and based on the traditional English criminal novels and criminal style. So we lack the US tradition. Nobody could write like Chandler or Hammett or those great writers of the hardboiled school.”

And you also write in the introduction about the complexity of Czech history, with all the traumas of the twentieth century – the Second World War, the occupation, the Holocaust, the expulsion of the German minority – all these events which have coloured this country. They have a habit of making their way into these stories, which you wouldn’t really expect in detective fiction.

“I tried to explore the Prague past in the book. So there are four parts. One is typical, hardboiled crime short stories. The second one is about Prague mysteries, which is very strongly connected to Prague – Magic Prague and so on. The third one is about the Nazi occupation, the communist era and there is also a short story about the 1990s, the wildest years in Czech history, with many criminals and criminal plots. And in the last part there is not even a crime in the stories, but they are close.”

There are several stories that do very much evoke the atmosphere of Prague, drawing us into this old city.

“Many of the stories are strongly connected to a particular place in Prague, like the Charles Bridge in Miloš Urban’s story. But they’re not just stories about the city centre, but also about some places outside the city centre, like the former railroad station in Žižkov. It’s the variety of the stories that makes me happy – that every story’s different from the others.”

The variety of writers from different generations is also interesting, including well-known names, like Miloš Urban whose books have become bestsellers in several countries, Ondřej Neff who is a legend of Czech sci-fi and Chaim Cigan which is the pseudonym of the former Chief Rabbi of Prague – and still Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic – Karol Sidon. Tell me about his story.

“It’s a kind of Jewish Hamlet during the Nazi occupation. I think it’s very moving, with a fine conclusion. The reviews in the United States particularly appreciated this story. So I’m happy that the international audience likes this one in particular.”

It was a magic amulet, inscribed by the learned Trnavian rabbi Šimon Sidon, Fred was saying, and the lives of many in his family had been saved thanks to the amulet, during both war and peace. According to him, even if Mom disagreed, it saved Max’s father’s life too during the First World War – he came back with no injury, which was a miracle. If only he’d had the amulet with him when the Gestapo took him, the poor man would have survived that war too! Mom kept shaking her head: “That’s ridiculous, Fred. […]” [Trans. Miriam Margala]

I’m now joined by one of the authors featured in the anthology, Kateřina Tučková. You wrote a story that is set just a few hundred metres from the Globe Bookstore, where we are standing now, on the embankment of the River Vltava.

Kateřina Tučková: “Yes. This is a house which is very important for me in Prague. I am originally from Brno so I’m a guest here in Prague, but I’ve lived here since 2006 and the building where my story is set is an interesting house from the end of the 19th century. What is most interesting about it is that every single window is really different – of a different shape. And this interesting and unusual façade inspired me to write a story about a family secret, which his set inside this building.”

That building left on people strolling along the promenade the impression of an unsettling inappropriateness. At first sight, something about it was off – something on it was crooked, something was missing somewhere, or, on the contrary, there was too much of something – devil knows what. It emanated disharmony. One’s vision became overwhelmed, as if one was looking into the distorted mirrors in the nearby Petřín Labyrinth. Passersby on the promenade usually looked at it searchingly – twice or even thrice – but then they gave up. After all, on the other bank of the Vltava, there opened in front of them the panorama of the Prague Castle that draws one’s eyes so naturally that it cannot be resisted. [Trans. Miriam Margala]

Kateřina Tučková,  photo: Pavel Hrdlička,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Kateřina Tučková: “Partly it is a real story, because I know the family that lives inside the building. It is a large family. It’s a five-storey building and in the past part of the family lived on every floor – until 1948 when the building was nationalised. The communist regime came and everything that belonged to the rich families was nationalised. So it was also the story of this family. The secret of the family which is hidden in the story is partly true and comes from the injustice of when property was nationalised.”

And when you were approached to write a short story for a collection of crime fiction, how did you react?

KT: “It was an interesting challenge for me, and I mixed the noir style with my usual way of writing, which draws from moments in history. So I joined two ways of writing and I really enjoyed it.”

And it’s interesting how in Czech fiction you can never get very far away from Czech history. It always creeps in…

KT: “For me it’s impossible, because I’m really rooted in Czech history. I studied history and history is my hobby, so for me it is a great source of inspiration.”

The ceiling fan in the pub creaked to the irregular rhythm of my heartbeat. And it was noisier than my alarm clock – the alarm clock under my skin. I lit another cigarette to even out the beat of my heart. “Listen – are you Štolba?” [Trans. Miriam Margala]

Jiří W. Procházka: “I’m George P. Walker, or in Czech my name is Jiří Walker Procházka – which is the same as George Procházka Walker – and I’m a writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective novels.”

And what’s your story about for this collection?

JWP: “My story is from the fair in Prague, the Matějská pouť, and it is set in a haunted house, full of vampires, dead pharaohs and mummies. And in the haunted house there is a very young dead girl. My detective is a very old man, a former cop, now a pensioner, and he loves revealing detective stories and catching murderers and bad boys…”

“I have plenty of money,” he said. “And it’s urgent. Very urgent.” The guys were still standing behind their big boss. The rhinoceros on the right had a scar across his cheek; the thin man and the fatso on the left beautified themselves with about twenty earrings each. Mr Fatso was also proudly exhibiting a nose ring in his spayed boxer-like nose. “And these are your bodyguards?” I took a sip of my beer. The froth had already thinned. Ferdinand shook his head. “No – family.” [Trans. Miriam Margala]

And if you’d like to find out which member of Ferdinand’s charming family is responsible for the dead girl in the haunted house, I can strongly recommend the anthology. It’s called Prague Noir, edited by Pavel Mandys, translated by Miriam Margala and published by the indefatigable Akashic Books.