commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

zygmunt miłoszewski

the teodor szacki series

Uwikłanie. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B., 2007.
 ∴  Entanglement. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London: Bitter Lemon, 2010.
 ∴  Les impliqués. Translated by Kamil Barbarski. Bordeaux: Mirobole, 2013.
 ∴  Warschauer Verstrickungen. Translated by Friedrich Griese. Berlin: Berlin Verlag Taschenbuch, 2015.
 ∴  El caso Telak. Translated by Francisco Javier Villaverde González. Barcelona: Alfaragua, 2015.
 ∴  Il caso costellazione. Translated by Beatrice Masini. Milano: Rizzoli, 2017.

Ziarno prawdy. Warszawa: W.A.B. 2011.
 ∴  A Grain of Truth. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London: Bitter Lemon, 2012.
 ∴  Un fond de vérité. Translated by Kamil Barbarski. Bordeaux: Mirobole, 2014.
 ∴  Ein Körnchen Wahrheit. Translated by Barbara Samborska. Berlin: Berlin Verlag Taschenbuch, 2016.
 ∴  La mitad de la verdad. Translated by Francisco Javier Villaverde González. Barcelona: Alfaragua, 2016.

Gniew. Warszawa: W.A.B., 2014.
 ∴  Rage. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Seattle: AmazonCrossing, 2014.
 ∴  La rage. Translated by Kamil Barbarski. Paris: Fleuve Noir, 2016.

Teodor Szacki is not technically a policeman but a state prosecutor; however, in the Polish system as Zygmunt Miłoszewski represents it, Szacki fills many of the same roles that detective-inspectors play in other crime series. (Plus, Szacki has "very often been accused of behaving more like a CID officer than a prosecutor during his investigations" – Rage, 197.) Szacki takes the lead in a murder investigation in three novels, each set in a different Polish city. His peripatetic nature and his tendency to burn bridges take him in turn from Warsaw to Sandomierz to Olsztyn in the course of the series.

Uwikłanie (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones as Entanglement) is a murder mystery set in Warsaw about 15 years after the fall of Communism. The novel abounds in local and temporal color, but it's not a mean-streets story. In fact, Miłoszewski constrains his plot, at least initially, with an extremely artificial device. Four patients assemble under the direction of a therapist. They've rented "cells" in a church building for a weekend-long role-playing exercise. One of them ends up dead with a meat skewer through the eyeball. Can it get cozier than that? Well, not the skewer part. But a limited list of suspects, a closed set of rooms, a sinister weapon – it sounds like a game of Clue. At one point police detective Oleg Kuzniecow says "I'm ninety-nine per cent certain the butler did it" (24).

Entanglement is a prosaic novel full of civil-service lifestyles and the banality of life in a city that's grown too fast. Yet it generates weird energy by giving us a window into some strange, if genuine, alternative cultures. The role-playing that forms the context for the murder is no ordinary group therapy. It is Family Constellations therapy, which Google and Wikipedia assure me is a real thing, and Miłoszewski describes the philosophy behind it, through his psychologist characters, in accurate detail. The members of the therapy group take turns playing significant others in one another's lives, and while a "constellation" of others is being worked through, the patient and the therapist arrange the players physically in the room, whereupon energies flow through the deployed bodies and hidden dynamics are revealed. Once the hidden becomes clear (much like a mystery story itself), bad feelings are purged and the patient recovers.

"Why was each successive witness more eccentric than the one before?" Prosecutor Teodor Szacki asks himself (262). In addition to fringe-y psychotherapists, Szacki finds himself interviewing paranoid experts on surveillance and calling on the advice of clairvoyants. At the end of the novel, he assembles all the suspects at the scene of the crime and starts arranging them in his own constellation. Shades of Hercule Poirot! But as Szacki tells the assembled group, "this is a trial experiment, not a detective novel" (317). If life imitates Krimi clichés, that's not his problem: life goes in weird directions and truth is stranger than fiction. Or fiction imitating truth imitating fiction is stranger than … a lot of reading experiences.

One of Szacki's paranoid informants suggests that the history of post-communist Poland is a lot like Frederick Forsyth's Odessa File (279), another example of characters taking inspiration from popular fiction and breathing it back into the fictional worlds they inhabit. And in his personal life, Szacki bonds with others over detective fiction. When he embarks on a tentative courtship of the young writer Monika Grzelka, Szacki first finds common ground with her in their reading of crime novels:

He liked the tough guys such as Lehane and Chandler, and she liked the writers who played with the genre such as Leon and Camilleri – but as for Rankin and Mankell, they were one hundred percent in agreement. For the next half hour they talked about Inspector Rebus adventures. (92-93)
Naturally such tastes are as seductive to readers as to the characters themselves.

If Entanglement takes place in a tissue of themes and situations drawn from other crime fiction, it has a sexual ideology to match. When the novel begins, Szacki is not a womanizer. Or at least, since the novel is told strictly from his perspective and that of a single, unnamed villain, we have no evidence that Szacki is a womanizer. But his own perspective lets us know, amply, that he is getting bored with his wife of over a decade – that they've both let themselves go physically, that glamor is hard to maintain on a civil-service salary when you have a child to support, that monogamy has the pleasures of familiarity but lacks those of the chase.

And one thing presented as "natural" but again, only from Szacki's perspective, is his fascination with the appearance of any woman who presents herself. His wife's fraying around the edges, the freshness of his new reading buddy Grzelka, the ugly, obtrusive sexuality of his boss Janina Chorko – but also the appearance of any female, from witnesses and victims' family members to random encounters on the street.

Perhaps people are their appearances, their attractivenesses, in Miłoszewski's Warsaw, because their essential character always lies behind a mask. For Szacki, post-Communist Poland is devoted to concealing pasts, identities, and allegiances. As his cozy murder puzzle develops, Szacki finds himself increasingly embroiled in a conspiracy to cover up misdeeds by communist-era enforcers. New capitalism is but old totalitarianism writ large, in Miłoszewski's worldview. The same old powers that be are still in the saddle (a view that echoes journalist/politician Radek Sikorski's analysis, in his 1990s memoir Full Circle). They will stop at nothing to prevent a full accounting for their abuses.

By this method, a silly little murder-mystery plot based on fringe-y psychodynamic theory becomes a platform for a highly engaged critique of Polish society and politics. Presumably Miłoszewski could have written either general realistic fiction or investigative nonfiction about these issues. Entanglement is blunt enough in its assessment of contemporary Poland, and it hasn't been suppressed or endangered its author that I know of (in fact, it spawned two sequels). The veil of fiction allows its critique to be generalized and diffused, but the critique cannot be missed. Entanglement is a good example of how writers can use the conventions, indeed clichés, of genre fiction to make critical interventions in socio-political discourse.

Ziarno prawdy (A Grain of Truth) deliberately sets out to chart the condition of Poland in the guise of a murder mystery.

Miłoszewksi explains in an afterword that he became enchanted by the town of Sandomierz after a visit there for a wedding, and became determined to set a novel there. The main problem, it would seem, was how to get his hero Teodor Szacki to Sandomierz full-time. After that, unleashing a plague of serial killings on the small city was relatively simple.

Szacki, we learn, had become fed up with both Warsaw and his marriage after the harrowing events of Uwikłanie. When a job opened up in sleepy Sandomierz, he jumped at it. Used to the bustle and variety of the capital, Szacki finds himself, by the time Ziarno prawdy opens, thoroughly fed up with small-town life.

Though it's not for lack of action. The book begins with a ghastly murder, a woman killed by careful exsanguination that (it appears) is calculated to resemble ritual kosher butchery. In an town with an anti-Semitic past, the overtones of blood libel and racialist provocation are unavoidable. There are no Jewish suspects, naturally – there are virtually no Jews in Mioszewski's Sandomierz – but the crime seems to be the work of people determined to exclude Jews, and perhaps any other "outsiders," in perpetuity.