“How unfair it is that we only have one life,” mused Szacki, “and that it so quickly bores us.”
I am less-than-thrilled with the recent flood of Scandinavian crime fiction. While I’m pleased to see publishers taking chances on books in translation (I read somewhere that a very small % of published books in N. America are translations), the latest offerings haven’t really interested me. Admittedly I haven’t read many–only a handful, and perhaps I read the ‘wrong ones’ but they’ve been bleak and anemic.
This brings me to another issue in crime fiction. I am getting bored with the overworked police detective who’s drinking himself into oblivion (a subject that recently came up at Whispering Gums). Classic noir fiction seemed to handle this character type perfectly–or perhaps it was just the times when a three Martini lunch wasn’t something that raised eyebrows. These days I can’t help but suspect that if you show up for roll-call with a whiff of booze, you’d be on leave and signing into rehab before you could grab your nightstick.
Anyway, this is a long preamble but it leads me to Entanglement an excellent POLISH crime novel from Bitter Lemon Press. This is one of the best police procedurals I’ve read in some time. My reaction may partly be explained by the fact that Poland seems exotic or at least fresh when it comes to crime locales. I’m not the only one who thinks that. Here’s the blurb from the back of the book:
“This is flinty, quirky crime writing from Poland with a pungent sense of locale and a nicely jaded protagonist in Szacki, the past-his-sell-date prosecutor energised by the case.” (Crime Time).
That’s so good, I wish I’d written it. Now to the book….
Warsaw State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki isn’t pleased when he’s told to investigate the murder of middle-aged businessman, Henryk Telak. The case just adds to the stack of work he already has, and compared to some of the other nasty cases he’s dealing with Telak’s murder doesn’t stand out in any notable way. But as Szacki starts asking questions, the case, which initially seemed to be the result of a burglary gone wrong, strangely becomes less transparent. The murder took place in a secure former Warsaw monastery now used for religious retreats. Telak was a participant at a weekend of intense Family Constellation Therapy, and the seminar was also attended by the therapist and four of his patients. Libidinous policeman Oleg Kuzniecow sums it up in one sentence: “one body, four suspects–all sober and well-to-do.”
Szacki begins to be intrigued by the case as it’s a “nice change after all those run-of-the-mill city murders.” The crime should be fairly easy to address: either one of the other people attending the seminar murdered Telak, or it’s a case of a murder committed during a random break-in. But the murder proves difficult to solve, and while there’s pressure to designate Telak’s death as an unsolved crime, Szacki isn’t ready to give up. There are troubling details about the crime that gnaw away at Szacki, and as he begins devoting time to the case and is gradually sucked in to its solution, it’s very easy for the reader to go along for the ride.
Szacki initially dismisses Family Constellation Therapy as quackery, and possibly explosive quackery at that, but as the plot develops, Szacki finds himself thinking in psycho-babble metaphors, and in another cold case, a tip from a clairvoyant may lead to a murderer. Szacki begins softening to the notion of therapy as a useful tool while he questions his own domestic situation and just what Family Constellation Therapy would reveal about his intimate relationships.
Part of the novel’s success can be attributed to Szacki. He isn’t the train-wreck-shell-of-a-man detective from, let’s say Raymond’s Factory series, but there’s definitely a self-destructive streak there under his flawed, all-too human surface. Szacki is a realistic character plagued with the trivia of everyday existence. For example, he limits himself to three cigarettes a day and then bargains about how soon to smoke them. He also worries about whether or not he can afford lunch in a cafe. For the first few pages, I assumed that Szacki was in his 50s (there are references to his white hair), but later it’s revealed that he’s in his 30s. He’s at the point in his career and in his marriage where he can see the future mapped out, and it’s hardly reassuring. He’s a man who could slowly slide into a life of bad habits, and this is underscored by the idea that Szacki is beginning to think that there’s something missing in his life which may very well be fixed with an adulterous romp with a young, attractive reporter. As the story develops, Entanglement could easily refer to the Telak murder, Szacki’s increasingly complicated personal life, or even the depths of Poland’s murky political past.
As Szacki hunts for the truth, he interviews, meets and questions a range of crisply drawn characters, and it’s these intense quirky characterisations–usually a few sentences with a concluding zinger–that really make the book so entertaining. Here’s Szacki about to question one of the women who attended the therapy session with the murder victim:
Hanna Kwiatkowska had a pretty, intelligent face and her slighty hooked nose gave her a surly appeal and a certain aristocratic charm. In twenty years she’d look like a pre-war countess. Her smooth, mousy hair came down to her shoulders, and its ends curled outwards. And although no fashion house would have offered her a job advertising underwear on the catwalk, plenty of men would have been happy to take a good look at her well-proportioned, attractive body. It was quite another matter how many of them would be scared off by the restless look in her eyes. Szacki for sure.
There’s also a couple of state pathologists (Szacki calls them “necrophiliacs“) who spice up their work hours with their morbid sense of humour, policeman Oleg Kuzniecow who won’t stop talking about sex, and Szacki’s boss, District Prosecutor for Warsaw City Centre, Janina Chorko–a tired, bitter, dried-up woman who makes him feel very uncomfortable:
She was several years older than Szacki: her grey suit blended with her grey hair and nicotine-grey face. Always a bit sulky, with a wrinkled brow, she gave the lie to the theory that there aren’t any ugly women. Janina Chorko was ugly, was perfectly aware of the fact and did not try to cover up her defects with clothes or make-up. Quite the opposite-she consciously made herself sour, malicious and painfully businesslike, which was in perfect harmony with her appearance, turning her into the archetypal boss from hell. The new prosecutors were afraid of her, and the trainees hid in the toilet whenever she came down the corridor.
While Szacki admires Janina Chorko’s intelligence and integrity, he lives in mortal fear of any hint that her obvious loneliness may one day spill over to a sexual proposition, and so any conference between Szacki and his boss is fraught with tension:
Szacki nodded in silence. She was right, but he was afraid that if he started agreeing with her to eagerly, she’d think she’d found a fraternal soul in him and would suggest he drop in at her place for a glass of wine and a nice little chat about the sad lot of the prosecutor in the Polish Republic. He waited a while out of courtesy, thanked the boss, muttered something about a huge pile of paperwork and went out, leaving Janina Chorko surrounded by unhappy thoughts, the stink of cigarettes and the smell of her imitation leather chair.
Glimpses of Szacki’s home life surface throughout the novel. Szacki’s marriage to Weronika isn’t bad, but their sex life has stagnated, and their daily life has dissolved down to a series of petty details. He’s genuinely confused when Oleg Kuzniecow makes a crack about Weronika’s attractiveness and wonders if Oleg sees something he doesn’t, if he’s being sarcastic, or if Oleg salivates over every female. Szacki finds it surprisingly easy to lie to his wife but then his job has taught him a great deal about deception.
Szacki also deals with the inflated ego of an idiosyncratic therapist and an amateur historian who specializes in the covert actions of the SB (Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa), Poland’s secret police whose brutal speciality was political suppression. The novel’s depth and creeping air of menace is accentuated by an unidentified character (subject to his own domestic tyranny) who tracks Szacki’s investigation in case he gets too close. Entanglement blends just the right amount of crime, sly humour and despair, and it’s a novel I recommend to anyone who reads crime fiction.
Notes at the front of the book mention that the author is working on a screenplay for Entanglement and is also writing a sequel.
Entanglement is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.