« The ant king and other stories », Zvlotsk   


Around the turn of the last century, as its factories pulled workers from the countryside and its population boomed, Zvlotsk was afflicted with many of the urban ills of its time: slums, houses of prostitution, and unsolved murders of a rough and ready sort. If not for the work of the forensic genius Herr Dr. Oswald Lügenmetzger, Zvlotsk might have continued to endure these plagues in gritty mediocrity.

Though he also broke racketeering rings by reasoning out their webs of suppliers and customers, specified the precise alloy to be used in police badges, and liberated poor girls from the slavery of prostitution through the exercise of Kantian metaphysics, Lügenmetzger’s true metier was the murder case. He could often solve murders before they occurred: It then became merely a matter of stationing an officer where he could observe the foul deed and apprehend the evildoer.

Lügenmetzger’s savaging of the criminal underworld could not long escape notice. Soon an entire industry of tabloid journals, pulp editions of victims’ memoirs, and theatrical reenactments grew up around his accomplishments. Thousands of would-be detectives were sold Starter Kits containing magnifying glasses, fingerprinting equipment, and copies of the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. By 1912, the popularization of detective work accounted for a third of the Zvlotskian economy.

Dr. Lügenmetzger’s answer to this tawdry circus, the Zvlotsk School of the Forensic Sciences, was an immediate sensation. But after the First World War, his cerebral style became increasingly unfashionable. In contrast, the Modern Academy of Detective Work offered a two-fisted, emotionally involved approach that eschewed antiseptic ratiocination.

By the late twenties, the schools had by any measure wildly succeeded. Detection rates were stratospheric, and criminals fled Zvlotsk en masse for less demanding cities. The falling murder rate squeezed the city’s detective industry, imperiling the economy. Editorials lambasted the cowardice of the fleeing criminals, and the Gridnovsky publishing empire threw its weight behind a variety of remedies: Murderer Starter Kits, sponsorship deals for elegant archvillains, and women’s magazine articles with titles like “Ten Ways to Find out if He’s Cheating on You (and Deserves to Die).”

In the thirties, economic privation and anger restored the murder rate to its proper levels, and Zvlotsk boomed. As murderous and detection-happy immigrants crowded into the city, a snob hierarchy developed. The disaffected mugger and the enraged cuckold were despised as lowbrows; the true craftsmen of murder inaugurated ever more elaborate schemes. Both murderers and detectives sported flamboyant costumes and exotic monikers, attempting to distinguish themselves from the common herd.

The Second World War dealt a major blow to amateur detectivism, and under the Communist regime it was outlawed as a form of bourgeois sentimentality. Both murder and police work became as drab as the endless rows of concrete block housing that grew up around Zvlotsk’s smokestacks. Dissidents lit candles to the spirit of Lügenmetzger and privately circulated illicit copies of true crime stories in the Gridnovskian mode.

After the Revolution of 1989, there were great hopes that Zvlotsk’s unique prewar culture of crime and detection would again flourish. But while the youth of Zvlotsk have embraced American-style serial killing along with MTV and McDonald’s, they find crime-solving prohibitively boring. The intellectuals of the University of Zvlotsk have declared detection an obsolete attempt to impose a totalizing narrative on the pure sign of murder. At present, Zvlotsk is a city with many murderers, but very few detectives.