Noir is the new black in Prague

Noir is the new black in Prague
12 May

Pavel Mandys, photo: David VaughanPavel 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

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 BooksPhoto: 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

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 3.0Kateřina 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

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

“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.



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