I’ve just made an interesting discovery. A British author, who came through Prague on a visit with his wife some years ago, was so inspired by the city that he began a crime series set in Prague, called The Josef Slonsky Series.
His first novel was self-published in 2010 and bore the extraordinary title of The Outrageous Behavior of Left-Handed Dwarfs. This self-published book quickly went out of print, but not before Mr. Brack had come to the attention of the UK’s Crime Writers Association, who awarded him a ‘High Commendation’ in their Debut Dagger Awards category. Mr. Breck then went on to be shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in 2014, for The Allegory of Art and Print (not published) and in 2016 for The Unreconstructed Man–(also unpublished) – because self-published or unpublished books do not disqualify an author for the Debut Dagger award.
So that is quite a pedigree for an author, one commendation and two short-listings for the UK’s CWA Debut Crime Novel of the Year. Then fortune smiled on Graham Brack. The lovely indie small-house publisher, Sapere Books, took him on as a client, re-titled his first book as Lying and Dying (having decided Left-Handed Dwarfs was not a commercially salable title) and further published Mr. Beck’s three sequels.
As I am an aspiring crime writer and crime novel book reviewer living in Prague, the Czech Republic, I was very excited to make this discovery – and quickly bought Brack’s novels, the boxed set of the first three and pre-ordered his latest, Field of Death. In a rush of excitement, I finished the first third of the first book in the series, Lying and Dying, in a single sitting, and quickly became quite disappointed and discouraged. The story as a police procedure is written competently enough, with an intriguing plot and some charming detectives squabbling among themselves, the charismatic inspector and his dogged, annoying logical sergeant assistant. (Somewhat derivative of Geraldine Evans, among others.) However, there is nothing distinctive about the setting. No rich insight into Czech and Prague history and culture, nothing that would distinguish the city from any other. A few Czech names are sprinkled throughout, Josef Slonsky, for example (which reminds me of the great Czech author, Josef Skvorecky), Lots of references to sausages and beer – and pastries and whipped cream. Street names and landmarks in Prague, and one reference to Kladno. Nothing distinctive about the crime or the police hierarchy or the government – or, well, just about anything. This could be Paris or Rome or Belgrade. It would take, in my estimation, about five hours at the computer to go through all the Czech/Prague references and change them to Croatian references and set the book in Dubrovnik. In other words, as a crime novel ‘set in Prague’, the book is terribly bland – and this statement comes from a very sympathetic reader. I was very excited when I began the book and now I sit here like a deflated balloon. But I will dutifully slog through the remainder of this first book, and skim through the other three.
Just to make my point clear, readers should take a look at four of the greatest city-based crime series to day in English – Donna Leon‘s Commissario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice (28 books in the series) , or Barbar Nadel’s Inspector Cetin Ikmans, series, set in Istanbul (21 books), or Cara Black’s Private Investigator, Aimee Leduc’s series set in Paris (21 books), , or Louise Penny‘s Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec (14 books) . All of these highly successful crime novelists give us a very rich reading experience, because they immerse us so deeply in the local culture and history and especially the local social issues. These books – and their crimes – could not be set anywhere else but in Venice, Istanbul, Paris or Quebec. We experience so much of the local culture and the distinctive personalities of human beings raised in those cultures. The detail, the detail! Unfortunately, all I’ve learned so far from the Josef Slovsky series is that Czech police officers like sausages and beer!
OK rant over. It’s just possible that Graham Brack improves from book to book, and I might be raving in a month or two about his latest installment, Field of Death.
For those who are interested, here is the publisher’s blurb on Graham Brack’s background:
Graham Brack hails from Sunderland and met his wife Gillian in Aberdeen where they were both studying pharmacy. After their degrees Gillian returned to Cornwall and Graham followed. This is now called stalking but in 1978 it was termed “romantic”. They have two children, Andrew and Hannah, and two grandchildren, Miranda and Sophie.
Graham’s foray into crime writing began in 2010 when he entered the Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger competition and was highly commended for Lying and Dying (previously titled The Outrageous Behaviour of Left-Handed Dwarves), in which the world was introduced to Lt Josef Slonský of the Czech police. Slaughter and Forgetting followed. Both have been re-published by Sapere Books along with the third book in the series, Death On Duty. The fourth book in the series, Field of Death, will be published in 2019.
In 2014 and 2016 Graham was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger again. The earlier novel, Death in Delft (previously titled The Allegory of Art and Science), is set in 17th century Delft and features the philosophy lecturer and reluctant detective Master Mercurius. Sapere Books will publish it in 2019.