The bookstore experience remains supreme. There's still nothing like going to a book shop to buy a particular novel, pausing to browse a little, and coming across another novel you never heard of but find intriguing. This happened to me a week ago, when I went to one of my favorite indie bookstores in Manhattan and saw, in the Russian lit section, a title that caught my eye - Eleven Prague Corpses.
Crime fiction by any chance?
A detective novel, set in Prague, about someone who kills eleven people?
The author was someone named Kirill Kobrin, the publisher Dalkey Archive Press. Year of publication: 2016. Prague's a city I've visited twice and loved, and I enjoy reading fiction set there, whether it's something from the past or contemporary.
So I took the book off the shelf and read the back cover copy:
"Using the classic murder mystery form dating back to Sherlock Holmes stories, Kirill Kobrin constructs mysteries that go beyond who is killed and who the killer is. With settings in Prague ranging from an art exhibit and a cafe to a clothes store and a museum, the stories feature a Russian narrator telling how he solved each of the crimes. But we are never sure whether this is the same narrator from story to story; what we do know is that the Russian does not like Prague, and that he possesses an uncannily rational mind that allows him to discover an inventive analytical solution for each crime."
The information about the author said that he writes fiction and non-fiction, co-edits a Moscow magazine, and is the author of fifteen books in Russian, one of them being a tribute to Flann O'Brien. Plus, critics have hailed him as the "Russian Borges".
Good copy, people.
When I'm reading fiction, nothing excites me as much as reading a novel or story that opens up possibilities in my mind for what I can do when writing stories myself. This is especially true for crime and mystery fiction, where, in a crowded field with a rich past, it's so hard to be surprising. Eleven Prague Corpses was a pleasure to read precisely because it provided ideas for how to play around with the mystery form while still writing legitimate mysteries. The book comprises ten interconnected stories, all taking place in contemporary Prague, and in each one there is indeed a corpse. The narrator is a grouchy, amusing guy who, in ways that are plausible (he's a journalist who write obituaries, at least for some of the stories), keeps encountering dead bodies. A British food critic apparently dies from acute pancreatitis; a school principle disappears and the corpse resembling him that's found belongs to a homeless person; at an art installation, the body of a guy who once committed a high school shooting massacre in the States turns up; there is a very creepy story involving department store security cameras, a pool of blood in a fitting room, and what the department store allows its most privileged customers to do for their private pleasure. Through each story, we follow a narrator who, though he is quite analytical, as promised, may not be all that reliable. Some solutions he comes up with must be the truth; other solutions, well, we can't be so sure. As mysteries are solved, aspects of the narrator's history and identity become a bit hazy. Clues abound. And Prague itself is like a character through the stories; the city, with its mixture of old and crassly modern, high culture and bad beer, seems to exercise its influence over everything. The narrator's dislike for the city, a place so often portrayed as beautiful and magical, becomes hilarious, and it's fascinating to read a book from the perspective of a post-Soviet Empire Russian stuck in, as he sees it, a backwater. At least in Prague, he has consistent work, something he might not be able to get in his miserable homeland.
Ten stories, eleven corpses, an author with an obvious love and knowledge of mystery fiction but who likes to twist and reshape the form and mess around with readers' heads. I found Eleven Prague Corpses to be a lot of fun, but it's also a book I'll be thinking about for how the author does what he does.
That Kobrin's the Russian Borges claim wasn't such a stretch. Really glad I found this book when I went to the bookstore last week.