Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski, translated by Danusia Stok

Rating

* * * * *

The book's description from the publisher's website:

Introducing one of the most stylish and moody historic detective series ever: The Inspector Eberhard Mock Quartet.
Occupied Breslau, 1933: Two young women are found murdered on a train, scorpions writhing on their bodies, an indecipherable note in an apparently oriental language nearby...Police Inspector Eberhard Mock's weekly assignation with two ladies of the night is interrupted as he is called to investigate. But uncovering the truth is no straightforward matter in Breslau. The city is in the grip of the Gestapo, and has become a place where spies are everywhere, corrupt ministers torture confessions from Jewish merchants, and Freemasons guard their secrets with blackmail and violence. And as Mock and his young assistant Herbert Anwaldt plunge into the city's squalid underbelly the case takes on a dark twist of the occult when the mysterious note seems to indicate a ritual killing with roots in the Crusades...

This was one crazy ride. I've been reading thrillers/mysteries/crime fiction for many years now. Therefore I'm not exactly a novice in this department. With my conscience clean and easy, I would place Mr. Krajewski's historical crime  novel among the best in this genre and beyond. Beyond, since Death in Breslau is one of those gems that blur the boundaries between several genres and display in front of a reader serious literary talents of the books' creators. And such indeed is the case with Death in Breslau. It is rightly called noir, with all the characters exhibiting various stages of moral and ethical decomposition. No superhero cop rising above corruption and other earthly traps will be found here. This one truly is a gritty, hardcore murder investigation set in a world of brutality, violence, death and ambiguous morals, a world where you either eat or get eaten. And sometimes not until your last breath do you know whether you're dying as prey or predator. 

Hidden within the folds of the crime novel is an unexpected treasure of historical fiction. Marek Krajewski paints a fascinating portrait of interwar Breslau, a German name for the city of Wroclaw, Poland, then under German occupation. It's a little embarrassing to admit but despite having been born and years later lived my wildest college years in my beautiful Wroclaw, I'd shown precious little knowledge or appreciation for the history within the brick walls of buildings, cathedrals, little side alleys and bridges (Breslau really is perceived by many as a city of islands because the rivers cut through it from all sides) that were part of my life a few years back just as they became the setting for Death in Breslau and a part of the lives of Inspector Mock, Herbert Anwaldt, other policemen, Gestapo officers, debauched aristocrats and prostitutes. Despite the gruesome murders and an uneasy atmosphere inundated with foreboding of what evil was yet to come (WWII), despite that ethical and moral decay slowly taking root in all who become entangled in the search for and the hiding of the truth, Mr. Krajewski gave us beauty too - the architectural beauty and the natural charm of Breslau, this majestic city that to this day retains all the appeal and is as a matter of fact rapidly becoming the cultural center of Europe. I'm waxing nostalgic here but hey, Wroclaw is and always has been worthy of every ounce of nostalgia poured over it :D.

Most importantly, in a true spirit of crime fiction, the plot is captivating and you'll find yourself utterly engaged in looking for the killer/s along with Eberhardt Mock and his sidekick from Berlin, Herbert Anwaldt. It's especially worthy of praise how the book's author developed these two characters who while playing the roles of 'the good guys' are probably the two most morally ambiguous people in the whole story. Mock and Anwaldt belong to the grey world of the 'not wholly good but not entirely evil either' human beings. Because of that, these two elements (totally my term of endearment) are also the most realistic characters in this story. Why, you ask? Because humans are nothing, if we're not morally ambiguous. Those Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Segal cop characters belong in the fantasy world that is a close and good neighbor of Disneyworld. They do not exist. Mocks and Anwaldts, on the other hand, very much so.

I'm very happy and very excited to see that the Polish literary crime world counts among its ranks such a talented writer as Marek Krajewski. His prose is smart, intelligent but never ostentatious or, goodness forbid, condescending. When I was reading Death in Breslau, I was experiencing a creation of  a confident writer, who knows where he belongs on the crime fiction and literary scene and  who is fervently carving out a permanent place among the talents of the European Noir. He deserves it too.

A Note On Translation

Death in Breslau has been translated from Polish by Danusia Stok. Ms. Stok is a very accomplished and skilled translator bringing Polish books to the UK market for quite some time. I believe she is less known in the American publishing market, an unfortunate situation which I greatly hope is in the process of being remedied. Her translation of Krajewski's novel was really good, the potential obstacle or challenge of dealing with German names and phrases and Latin sayings sprinkled throughout, all to never break the flow of the narrative in the translation of the main text seemed to not have been a challenge at all. Danusia Stok is the necessary half to Krajewski's in forming a literary tandem to give the English world a hearty bite of the Polish mystery genre.

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FTC: I received an e-galley of Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski from the publisher, Melville House via Edelweiss.


Just to give you a glimpse of Wroclaw, here are a few photos for your enjoyment
This is University of Wroclaw, my alma mater.


Inside the main building of the University, there is this astonishing room in which I got officially immatriculated into the folds of University of Wroclaw.