Prague in Noir – Paseka publishes new urban noir compilation

Photo: Paseka publishing

Noir fiction and the sub-genre Urban Noir do not have a long-standing tradition in Czech writing, where the emphasis for many years was on classic mysteries and detective stories. But that didn’t stop the independent Brooklyn-based publishing house Akashic Books from addressing Czech publisher Paseka with the idea of adding Prague to its long running urban noir series.

Photo: Paseka publishing
The series, featuring work by local authors, has covered some 50 cities worldwide already, from Baltimore to Tehran. Editor Pavel Mandys was tasked with finding 14 authors to each write a separate story set in a different part of the Czech capital - he revealed details at a press event this week marking the release of the Czech-language version of the book called Praha Noir.

“This was kind of a first attempt to plant the genre here and at the same time an important aspect for me was to give our authors greater exposure abroad. Put simply, our authors struggle a little for recognition in Anglo-Saxon countries, so this project was an opportunity. I kind of wanted to smuggle them in. We’ll see how things go from here. So far the English-release by Akashic Books has been set for the summer of 2017. The translation is underway, so we’ll see how things move ahead.”

Authors in the compilation include Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic Karol Sidon, writing as Chaim Gigan, Kateřina Tučková or Miloš Urban, known for modern gothic horror. I talked to him about his short story in Prague Noir which you’ll hear shortly. But first, here is Milan Macháček of Paseka, who told me more about how Praha Noir came together.

“We were approached by the American publisher who has been running their Noir series for quite a few years. They have several dozen volumes published already or in preparation and they were very interesting in also including Prague. The first thing we did was find an editor for the job, which was Pavel Mandys and the task was to find 10 – 14 Czech authors who would each write a Noir short story. We are very grateful that Pavel succeeded in finding 14 excellent Czech authors. The book is a little more than about Noir, crime writing and Prague but showcases the talents of some of our best writers. There are some major names outside the genre and outside of crime writing.”

Who are some of the authors who took part in the project?

Pavel Mandys,  photo: David Vaughan
“We have different generations of authors, some very well-known who have written about Prague before: Karol Sidon (writing under the pen name Chaim Cigan), Ondřej Neff, others who are known particularly for crime writing like Michaela Klevisová, Michaela Sýkorová, and there some very promising new names like Martin Goffa. There are excellent stories in the collection.”

In general, is it true that Noir does not have that strong or fixed tradition here? Pavel Mandys suggested as much, as in the Noir tradition the police are often depicted as the bad guys or part of the problem, which obviously wouldn’t have worked under 40 years of communism, where the police ‘always solved the crime’. Consequently, traditional mysteries have more of a tradition here…

“It is true that the Noir tradition has not been particularly strong in the Czech Republic or in Czechoslovakia before. Czech crime writing was very much in line with the classic detective story but we do have a strong mystery tradition and also a mystical strain through legends such as The Golem. So this is a book with many faces, it is not orthodox Noir by any means.”

I guess that in a way is the point, to bring different takes on Noir together, from different cities, not to be carbon copies but to bring something new to the table…

“That is a part, certainly. Discovering American cities, foreign cities, to see how they compare. And what we have brought to it is a specific Prague approach.”

Fourteen stories is too many to list off but are there perhaps one or two that really knocked your socks off? Maybe with a twist that you didn’t see coming?

Kateřina Tučková,  photo: Pavel Hrdlička,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I’d name the story by Kateřina Tučková which was written or inspired by the building we are standing in now (on the Prague embankment, built during the First Republic, home to the Vltavín Gallery): it has a very keen sense of history and place. Another two I would mention are from the first part of the book, where the writing is perhaps the closest to what American audiences expect from the Hard-boiled genre, stories by Martin Goffa and and Štepán Kopřiva. They are written in a kind of condensed, brief style. I really liked these but all of the stories in the volume are well-worth reading.”

One of the stories many readers are looking forward to is by author Miloš Urban, called “Disappearances on the Bridge”. The author himself:

“Well it certainly was a challenge for me. I was tasked with writing a short story about the Charles Bridge. Originally, I wanted the Old Town Square or St Vitus Cathedral but those were already taken, so I settled on the greatest challenge of all, the bridge. By luck I read a newspaper article about new state-of-the-art security cameras being installed there, to monitor activities on the bridge. It inspired a plot where the cameras however were missing some crime. I can’t say more but people go for a walk on the bridge but begin to disappear. At first the camera sees the, then it doesn’t. At first the police are very reluctant to investigate but eventually they have to… and then they themselves begin to disappear.”

There is also a very nice juxtaposition of one of the oldest bridges in Europe and this new technology; I’m sure that must have been something that was going through your mind when you were plotting the story.

“Yes. There is a discrepancy in that and drama in that. I wanted to play these elements off each other.”

If we talk about Noir in general, is there something everything a good Noir story should have? The genre has been broadened, subverted, changed…

Miloš Urban,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“It can be very broad. For me, there has to be a woman, there has to be a femme fatale that lures the man or men into a trap or some kind of great danger. It doesn’t have to be too bloody but a little crazy, yes please.”

A little crazy sounds good. English readers, as you heard in the programme, can look forward to the Akashic Books edition, barring unexpected changes, in 2017.