Phantoms of Breslau, By Marek Krajewski, trans. Danusia Stok

A haunting tale from the underworld

Wroclaw in Silesia, part of Poland only since 1945, is a city of ghosts. Beneath its postwar veneer lie the remains of German Breslau, a "microcosm" of all central Europe that vanished in the blood and fire of the dying Third Reich. A classicist at Wroclaw University, Marek Krajewski – in his splendid series of crime novels about inter-war Breslau – disinters this buried metropolis like a fictional archaeologist. He frames his tantalising mysteries and gamey characters with an almost hallucinatory sense of place, as the books rebuild – brick by brick, taste by taste – the atmosphere of slums and suburbs, parks and pubs, courthouses and whorehouses.

Victim of an obscure traumatic harm in the First World War, Krajewski's copper, Criminal Assistant Eberhard Mock, is a vice-squad specialist. Imprudently often, Mock samples the wares of the business he has to control. A drunken, wayward libertine, but Freud-admiring intellectual and fiercely logical investigator, Mock embodies the flagrant contradictions of Germany's new-born Weimar Republic. In his police work, as in the city's life during muggy, strike-torn September 1919, prewar formality and hierarchy wrestle with the demons of social and sexual revolution untethered by defeat.

In this third Mock novel translated (with a salty period tang) by Danusia Stok, the mutilated corpses of four young men in sailors' outfits hint at a case that belongs in Breslau's erotic underworld, Mock's beat. Yet the killer, who soon reprises this stunt, taunts the Criminal Assistant in messages full of the feverish imagery of apocalyptic religion: another sign of troubled times. Whenever Mock interviews witnesses, from river-shipping magnates to pitiable street-girls, they soon die. The messianic murderer wants him to confess: but to what?

From the squalid digs the detective shares with his lonely father to the plush villa of army chum Dr Ruhtgard, from waltzing hotel "hostesses" to heart-stopping local fare, Breslau 1919 lives again. Via tenement courtyards and aristocratic mansions, Mock edges closer to his quarry. Then, given his fatal propensity to mix business and pleasure, he falls for Erika. Despite their Baltic seaside idyll, the dangers multiply. If the secret of these deaths lurks in the wartime past, then the ritualistic dogma that surrounds them very faintly hints at an equally grim future.