Krajewski, Marek - 'Phantoms of Breslau' (translated by Danusia Stok)
This novel is set in Breslau (now known as Wroclaw) in 1919. It revolves around the criminal assistant Mock, who is single, living with his father, and has a strong interest in prostitutes (well, he is in the Vice squad after all) and alcohol (attributed to his inability to sleep). At the start of the novel, four bodies are found near the Ottwizer Dam, or more strictly, four human torsos with broken limbs that have been jumbled together to make a weird kind of sculpture. They appear to be four sailors, in that they are wearing sailors' hats on their heads, but aside from the hats they are mostly naked, although they are each wearing leather pouches over their genitals. To complete the picture, their eyes have been gouged out. A card, found on one of the men, appears to give a reason for the murder, and immediately explains why Mock has been called to the scene, and is then drafted (with his assistant) to homicide. The card says:
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Mock, admit your mistake, admit you have come to believe. If you do not want to see more gouged eyes, admit your mistake"
Someone is trying to take revenge on Mock for something he has done, but he has no idea what. What was his mistake? It is rather surprising he doesn't remember given the response of the person offended, as the discovery of four people killed in the way described suggests that the murderer is pretty annoyed. Thereafter begins a rather stumbling, unfocused attempt by Mock to discover his 'sin' and the identity of the murderer, with little success. Soon two more bodies turn up, with the same message for Mock. Even a psychological evaluation of Mock does not reveal anything about his potential 'sin'. As he investigates, there are some rather uninteresting depictions of Mock in various whorehouses, getting drunk, and sleeping it off in police cells. Eventually he is taken off the case, and goes on holiday with one of the prostitutes, prior to coming back and the final denouement.
Interspersed chapters, written by the unknown murderer, show that he must be an intellectual of some sort, as the murderer reads (and translates) original Latin texts, the first of which, for example is a piece of text from Pliny. These start to give a clue as to his motive, without revealing who he is.
Overall, I found Mock to be a thoroughly unsympathetic, and rather stupid character, and found it very hard to care about what he might have done, and whether or not he caught the murderer. The interspersed chapters written by the murderer were dull, and the reason behind the murders, once revealed, was laughable. I really didn't enjoy this book much at all, found it hard to follow the plot, didn't particularly enjoy the descriptions of Breslau, mostly focused as they were on Mock's hangouts and bouts of drinking, and am not strongly tempted to read any more books by this author. I suspect that this is partly because the book was written for the Polish market, where the background and historical significance of the story is much more widely known and will resonate with that culture. If this and other books from this author are to gain wider popularity, then more background is needed in the books for the western European market to draw us in. However, if you like historical crime fiction, roundabout dense slightly unbelievable plots and unappealing main characters, maybe this is one for you.
Read another review of PHANTOMS OF BRESLAU.
Michelle Peckham, England