A couple of years ago, at the Centennial Hall in Wrocław, I heard Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead play a live gig alongside his idol – avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. As if that conjunction were not piquant enough, the pair performed under architect Max Berg’s flying-saucer dome in a venue that, on seven occasions, hosted another kind of act: Adolf Hitler. Until the war’s end shifted Poland’s borders west, Wrocław was the very German city of Breslau. Throw a stick in Poland and you hit 20th-century history: not in cold stones but in living memory and still-contested narratives.
Novelist Zygmunt Miłoszewski tells me that “in this country, history is less of an academic topic and more of a national obsession, and this is extremely plain to see in the crime fiction.” Miłoszewski, a former Newsweek journalist, is a leading figure in a new wave of Polish crime writers who may soon challenge Nordic noir among connoisseurs of European skullduggery. Polish crime often takes its cue from the secrets, lies and tragedies embedded in an eventful recent past. That embraces recovered statehood (in 1918), genocidal Nazi occupation, bloodily heroic resistance, numbing Soviet control and, in the 1980s, the Solidarity-led push for freedom.
To Miłoszewski “the most interesting crimes aren’t the ones committed under the influence of strong emotions, but those that result from various old wrongs and injustices which ripen over the years …. Polish history is full of twists and dramatic events; whenever anyone starts to tell family stories, they’re always like material for a novel.” He reports that “a decade ago, when prizes were first awarded for the best Polish crime novel, the jurors only had to select the winner from about a dozen books, but now they have to choose from almost a hundred”.
Bitter Lemon Press has released two of his novels featuring public prosecutor Teodor Szacki: Entanglement – with roots in communist-era crimes – and A Grain of Truth, which delves into Polish anti-Semitism. Both are (beautifully) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who has long found that the nation’s past erupts into its present. “I first went to Poland in 1983, and was immediately struck by the extent to which, figuratively speaking, the wartime ruins were still smouldering.”
As for Miłoszewski’s thrillers, she says: “They have solid crime plots, explore interesting historical and social issues, are superbly researched and have credible characters who speak naturally. Best of all, they have humour.”
In Wrocław itself, the king of crime is Classics professor Marek Krajewski. His Eberhard Mock novels take place at intervals in still-German Breslau after 1919. Wider upheavals impinge on the gruesome cases investigated by his erudite, sensual and rule-busting detective. Mysteries such as Death in Breslau, Phantoms of Breslau and The Minotaur’s Head (all translated by Danusia Stok for MacLehose Press) recreate every palatial office and louche club in a tangy, tangible – even sleazy – evocation of the lost city from top brass to lower depths.
Krajewski himself explains that, in communist Poland, the taboo status and decadent aura of German Breslau piqued his curiosity: “What is taboo seems to us to be extremely fascinating.” Local fans quickly embraced the Mock mysteries. By the time of the democratic transition of 1989, “the taboo about the German city fell”. Yet for all Mock’s Breslau eccentricities, his creator describes the cerebral yet sometimes thuggish investigator as “a distant descendant of [Raymond Chandler’s] Philip Marlowe”.
Novelist Anya Lipska calls Mock “so deliciously corrupt and flawed that he just wouldn’t work in a British crime novel”. With her work, a more recent side of Polish experience comes to the fore. “Anya Lipska” is the pseudonym of a British writer married to a London Pole who arrived during the Soviet era. That migrant perspective frames Where The Devil Can’t Go and (published this week by The Friday Project) Death Can’t Take a Joke. With the Anglo-Polish duo of Metropolitan Police detective Natalie Kershaw and private eye Janusz Kiszka at their heart, both mysteries switch between dark deeds in Poland and a gloriously salty, gritty – and very Polish – east London. “We live in the East End, which has a Polski sklep on every high street,” Lipska says, “and a burgeoning Polish population. What’s more, my partner gave me a great ‘in’ to Polish culture, mores and history.” For Lipska, Polish crime fiction is marked by “a big anti-authoritarian streak, a satirical sense of humour, a romantic enjoyment of melancholy, and a preoccupation with the past”.
So, which other Polish sleuths should we discover? Already translated, Mariusz Czubaj exposes crimes among the Catholic clergy in his 21:37 (Stork Press) - as Antonia Lloyd-Jones notes, “another sensitive area for Polish readers”. Like Miłoszewski, she enthuses about the Lublin novels of Marcin Wronski: “good yarns with plenty of louche characters and lots of historical detail”. For Miłoszewski, Wronski’s fiction “is a journey into a meticulously depicted world that no longer exists. Here we have a portrait of the pre-war city of Lublin, where the Jewish and Polish mafias are in charge. But also the post-war Lublin, when the new Communist system was being established.”
Marek Krajewski argues that his generation can now “represent all the genres of crime writing: from period dramas (Marcin Wronski and me) through thrillers (Zygmunt Miłoszewski) to modern crime novels with a social background that can be compared with Scandinavian masters such as Mankell (Mariusz Czubaj). The originality of Polish crime novels is based on describing strange, complicated Polish circumstances … in the attractive form of a crime story.”
Lloyd-Jones also praises Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: a much-acclaimed literary novelist who deploys crime conventions “to make some salient points about how mainstream society unwisely ignores certain categories of people”.
Miłoszewski hails Katarzyna Bonda, first feted for her crime-themed non-fiction but now also the author of “psychological-feminist crime novels. In Polish the word for crime is zbrodnia, which is a feminine noun.”
Miłoszewski says: “If we ever manage to take over from the Scandinavians, crime stories about the shadows of society will be displaced by crime stories about the shadows of memory.” From the Polish mysteries so far available here, British readers can enjoy the play of those shadows without having to feel the chill. Even if you can’t tell your kielbasa from your kaszanka, a feast awaits.
Death Can’t Take a joke, By Anya Lipska, The Friday Project £7.99
‘The guy handed him his tea in a massive china mug. “Polish?” he asked. Janusz nodded. “What do you think of Szczesny, then?” It struck Janusz that the handful of his country- men who played in the Premier League had done more to promote a grasp of Polish pronunciation than the million or so who ’d come here to find work in the last ten years.’