Prosecutor Szacki’s Last Stand?

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Book Review: Rage by Zygmunt Miłozewski

(Amazon Crossing)

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

review by Ernest Barteldes

On the final part of his Prosecutor Szacki trilogy that began with Entanglement (Bitter Lemon) , Zygmunt Miłozewski takes us to Olsztyn, where he transferred following the events from Grain of Truth (Bitter Lemon).

Szacki’s life has changed considerably – his teenage daughter is now living with him while his ex-wife is traveling around Asia with her new husband, and he is also in a lasting relationship with a local woman – which prompted him to leave Warsaw for good for this former German city, where he lives in an apartment just across the boulevard from the prosecution service.

But Szacki has not lost his usual bitterness. When he is called at a construction site below a hospital when a skeleton of what is believed to be a “German” (old remains are always – according to the novel – considered to be of Germans who previously lived there), he mutters to himself about hoping to have a “real” case that he can really investigate, not the usual drunken college student brawls that he routinely deals with. Further studies of the remains shows that the bones are actually much newer than previously thought, and that the deceased – a travel agent – had a gruesome death, dissolved while still alive using hydrocloric acid – the kind sold in any supermarket for unclogging household drains.

Rage has plenty of colorful characters – among them a doctor that assists with the investigation – a Dr. Frankenstein, who is also a professor who has alcohol-fueled parties with his students in a his campus lab. He is clearly an eccentric, but he seems to get along well with the prosecutor thanks to his dry personality and detail-focused demeanor. As the story progresses, we find that anger is central to all the main characters, going from the prosecutor himself to the surprising perpetrator.

Miłozewski does no favors to the town of Olsztyn (where he – as of this writing – resides), and describes it as a dark, uninteresting place to be with lousy weather and ugly streets: “Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around.”

The story line is extremely engaging all the way to its anti-climatic twist ending. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation (she works closely with the author) flows nicely, without leaving the reader with any feeling of being lost in translation at any moment.

In the backdrop of the narrative are the news stories of the day: the political crisis in Ukraine and the the civil war in Syria and minor news headlines from around Poland. There are many other pop culture references, which might make the novel seem dated in a few years – I mean, will anyone remember reruns of the American sitcom Friends in, say, two or three decades?

According to some news reports, this is where we say goodbye to Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, and the ending makes us pretty certain of that – but given that the series has been so successful since its inception (the first two books were adapted into movies), will this really be goodbye? As a fan of the series myself, I sincerely hope not.

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Book Review: A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Milosewski

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

A naked woman is found murdered outside a former synagogue in the provincial town of Sandormierz, in Southeastern Poland. It is a weird crime scene, since not only is she exsanguinated, but the murder weapon – a shehita (used in Kosher slaughters) – is found next to the body.

Called to the crime scene is prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who just transferred to the area following the events from Entanglement. His marriage ended following his involvement with Monika Grzelka, an attractive but inquisitive journalist he met during the first novel. That affair came to an end in a way the omniscient narrator doesn’t seem to care to address – he takes no more than a few lines to say it ran its course and then Szacki was on his way out of town, trading high-profile crimes to small-town cases he feels are below his expertise, such as stolen cellphones or drunken brawls created by white supremacists fueled by the recent events in Europe.

This monotony of sorts comes to an end as he is assigned to the strange murder that brings together Sandomierz’s reputation of anti-Semitism during and after World War II:  St. Paul’s Church – the largest in town –  has frescoes depicting blood libel  committed by Jews against local Catholics. One of the worst – which can be seen by anyone who visits the city – depicts Jews purchasing young children and then ritually murdering them and finally offering the remains to rabid dogs.

The frescoes intrigue Szacki – who is not in any way an anti-Semite – and since he is an outsider, he is both the best and the worst person to investigate this crime: since he is new in town, he is not exactly trusted by locals who have been there all their lives, but he is also not one to be biased by old friendships – the other local prosecutor, Basia Sobieraj, was a longtime friend of the victim and is clearly way too involved with the city’s life to properly investigate the case.

As I have written previously, criminal investigations in Poland are conducted in a completely different manner than they are in the US. In this country, the judiciary only gets involved once the police end their investigation and ultimately turn it over to the judiciary. In that country, they get involved right at the crime scene, and fully participate in the proceedings until a verdict is rendered – so Szacki gets to see the crime scene and works together with the police almost to the very last page.

Like in the previous tome, we get to see a lot of the prosecutor’s private life. Though remorseful for ruining his marriage back in the capital, he doesn’t mind fucking any woman that makes herself available – even if that might jeopardize his professional position in this tight-knit community.

It is not an easy investigation as the prosecutor might have thought would be – within the first 50 pages it seems like it is going to be open-and-shut, but twists come along that complicate things.

The author has a very sarcastic tone about his fellow Poles – through Szacki he is very critical of the nation’s pessimism (“Maybe the Law and Order Party will win the next election,” the prosecutor snaps at a conservative co-worker after an uncomfortable exchange – how right was he in hindsight?) and Catholic values, but he does so in a satirical – and not disrespectful way.

A Grain of Truth was – like its predecessor – adapted into a movie, but this time Szacki is played by a male. I have seen the trailer but sadly not the film, since (again) it has not been released Stateside in spite of the success of the novels here.  For those who enjoy an intelligently written potboiler, this is the book for you for sure – and a sequel is on the way.

A Grain of Truth

Zygmunt Milozewski

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Bitter Lemon Press

Available in various formats