Breslau, May 1933: the Nazis are tightening their grip on the city. At the station, the disembowelled corpses of a young aristocrat and her companion are found on a train, live scorpions scuttling about in their entrails. Herr Kriminaldirektor Eberhard Mock's inquiries have barely got off the ground when the Gestapo extract a confession from an elderly Jew, who is promptly found hanged in his cell. Case closed. Mock is promoted, and told to lay off.
Since Lindsey Davis set her sleuth Falco to work on the conspiracies of Imperial Rome, the historical murder mystery has become an established genre. Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin stories are set amid the smoke and mirrors of tsarist Russia, while Frank Tallis's Dr Max Liebermann brings Freud's insights to bear on the crimes of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The setting is crucial: a great city, seething with intrigue and, preferably, steeped in decadence, at a turning point in its history.
The Polish writer Marek Krajewski understands the genre perfectly. A classics lecturer at the University of Wroclaw, he has chosen his home town's pre-war incarnation as the German city of Breslau as his setting. Four books have been successfully published in Poland and Germany; this is the first to be translated into English.
True to the tradition of the hard-boiled thriller, Mock is not immediately likeable: lugubrious and seedy, a frequenter of brothels, not averse to beating a confession out of a suspect. Although he's a visceral anti-Nazi, he adapts pragmatically to regime change, playing off rival factions to give himself room to manoeuvre. Recalled in flashback from the 1950s, events are seen through the lens of the city's destruction and transformation. The historical topography is spot on, although hindsight has cast a lurid glow on this bourgeois city.
Given the context, it is no surprise that this thriller is as noir as they get, steeped in a rank air of cynicism and fear, and brutally punctuated by torture and sadism. The solution offers no sense of justice done, of order restored; it is merely a way-station on an inexorable descent into hell.
Danusia Stok's translation is terse and gripping, despite a few anomalies, and the publishers should have worked out that Breslau was not a border city, but well inside German territory until 1945. But this complex and atmospheric thriller will find many fans, who will eagerly await the rest of Krajewski's Breslau quartet.
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