Mysterious Czechs

The crime fiction genre in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech and Slovak Republics) has a relatively short but distinguished history. The earliest mysteries were imported translations of Poe and Doyle but soon indigenous writers began to develop a genre more appropriate to the culture of Central Europe. One of the earliest and most revered authors was the great Karel Capek (pronounced Chapek, author of The War With the Newts and R.U.R as well as many other remarkable works). Capek read Chesterton, Christie and other established authors and was greatly influenced by Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. He wrote a very insightful two-part essay entitled ‹Holmesiana or About Detectives in which he opined that reading about crime ‹satisfies not only our preoccupation with a suppressed, latent criminality but also our latent and fierce proclivities for justice. In the 1920s he began publishing short mysteries as newspaper columns and later collected these stories in Tales From Two Pockets (Catbird Press, North Haven, Ct., 1994). He created a Czech tradition of a folksy, non-heroic detective, usually a policeman who solved crimes in ordinary settings with calm intelligence and logic. The stories were witty and cloaked in Czech culture. His most often used hero, a policeman named Dr. Mejzlik, is a patient and avuncular detective - a contrast to the flamboyant, eccentric detectives of the time. One of the truly superb stories in the collection is The Poet, a delightful tale of a hit and run crime solved with brilliance and wit.

The heavy hand of the socialist government from 1945 to 1991 depressed the arts in general and dull, patriotic socialist realism dominated all art forms including literature. Crime fiction was used by the Communist Party, however, as a political propaganda tool. A major television series entitled Major Zeman was produced depicting a Czech police officer who valiantly chased and caught evil Western spies and speculators. Interestingly, the series was rerun by one of the local television stations in 1999 and raised a furor among the population - many resented it as Communist propaganda revived while others looked upon it with some nostalgia!

During the socialist period there was another interesting mystery writer who created a most unusual, if somewhat vulnerable, policeman who solved more typical crimes in a drab, centrally planned Prague. Josef Skvorecky wrote a series of superb stories (four volumes) featuring Lt. Boruvka. Boruvka provided the reader a realistic view into Czech life, crime, bureaucracy and his own very unheroic travails with his family and superiors (The Mournful Demeanor of Lt. Boruvka,, Norton, N.Y., 1991). The last book in the series detailed his (Boruvka's) escape to Canada (The End of Lieutenant Boruvka, Faber and Faber, London, 1991) where Skvorecky fled and still lives and writes. This series is a superb example of crime fiction written around the censors by a remarkable artist who captures life under socialism in a realistic way. In the Capek tradition Boruvka was an ordinary policeman with an ordinary name - boruvka means blueberry!

The crime fiction genre has flourished in the Czech Republic and one can hardly miss the signs of a voracious reading public in the bookstore windows featuring almost every European and American mystery writer and a plethora of Czechs. Among the most popular of the current Czech writers are Eva Kacirkova (pronounced Kachirkova) who has written many mysteries and won the coveted Havran (Raven) in 1994 for accomplishments in the mystery field. Her novels are dark, psychological stories. Other contemporary writers include one of the doyens of the genre, Otakar Chaloupka, who has just published Unholy Cathedral and the very popular V.P. Borovicka (pronounced Borovichka). The latter has published more than 12 novels and written a number of television screen plays. Another popular writer is Jan Cimicky (pronounced Tsimitsky) who has a medical education that is very cleverly reflected in his novels. Unfortunately none of the work of these and the many, many other talented contemporary writers has been translated into English. Mysteries in the Czech Republic run the complete gamut of types ranging from the psychological to the hard-boiled. They are imaginative, thoughtful and exceptionally well written.

One of the most well known main stream Czech writers today, Pavel Kohout, has entered the mystery field with his novel The Widow Killer (available in English from St. Martin's Press, New York, 1998). It is set in Prague at the end of the Nazi occupation and revolves about a local policeman and a Gestapo investigator trying to find and stop a bloody serial killer during this most chaotic time.. It is a remarkable piece of work with wonderful character development and the City of Prague featured as a major player in the drama.

The mystery genre or detektivky is in a healthy condition in the Czech Republic and is probably the most avidly read literature of the masses. Unfortunately too few non-Czech mystery devotees are aware of the fascinating history of the genre in the land of Kafka and even fewer have the opportunity to sample its wonderfully creative pool of writers. As in the case of many other countries discussed in this column there is a serious need for publishers to expend some energy and capital to find and translate the best authors in other cultures.

GJD

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