My mother is Polish, which meant that, during the holidays when I was a kid, we broke out the polka records and kielbasa for special occasion meals from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Certainly, nostalgia for those belch-y festivities of yore led me to A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski, a Polish mystery novel that unexpectedly turns out to be as hard-boiled as the skin around a circlet of that ubiquitous holiday kielbasa. It’s also just about as tough to digest, given that it delves deep into the ways that modern Polish society handles — and avoids — the historical memory of anti-Semitism during and immediately after World War II.
Like many a fine crime writer before him, Miloszewski worked as a journalist; he also served as a former editor of the Polish edition of Newsweek. His reportorial eye imbues Miloszewski’s depictions of daily life in provincial Poland with fine detail, as well as his own distinctive bitter humor. The likeably washed-up hero of A Grain of Truth is named Teodor Szacki; in the first novel of this series, called Entanglement (which has also been translated into English and is available through Bitter Lemon Press), Szacki, a state prosecutor in Warsaw, allowed a stupid affair to destroy his marriage and family. In A Grain of Truth, Szacki has fled that emotional wreckage and moved to the town of Sandomierz a picturesque burgh of fine old manor houses and churches.
A few months into his new life, Szacki has realized that: “he had thrown the life he had spent years building down the toilet … and now he was left with nothing, which felt so terrible that it even gave him a sense of exoneration for his own bad behavior.
“Instead of being the star of the capital city’s prosecution service, he was an outsider who prompted mistrust in a provincial city, which was in fact dead after six p.m.”
Szacki also learns something else about his new hometown: Sandomierz turns out to have been a red-hot locale, historically-speaking, for anti-Semitic atrocities. In fact, the town’s soaring cathedral is famous for a painting that depicts Jews slaughtering Christian children. These days, that painting has been tastefully covered up by a red cloth upon which a portrait of Pope John Paul II has been affixed.
The case that draws Szacki in is just as baroque and gory as those cathedral paintings, involving a series of what look to be ritual murders, in which the victims die in ways inspired by that infamous painting. The intricate mystery narrative here owes debts to Poe’s Purloined Letter and even Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, but it’s really Miloszewski’s nuanced take on contemporary Poland — geographically and sociologically — that makes A Grain of Truth such a stand-out. Grey winter in Miloszewski’s Poland seems to last even longer than winter in Stieg Larsson’s Sweden: it’s a running black humor joke in this story that Szacki is always dashing out of his apartment underdressed into the Polish spring drizzle and wind. And the atmosphere is just as oppressive, psychologically. Because of the apparent nature of the murders, Szacki must sprint all over town interrogating suspects, among them modern so-called Polish “patriots,” extremists who bombard him with their anti-Semitic rants. He’s also forced to face his own discomfort with the topic of Polish-Jewish relations, especially when an anti-Semitic slip of the tongue during a press conference makes him, to his own horror, “the hero of small-town Poland.”
A Grain of Truth, like every great crime novel, digs up more unsettling questions than it does answers; it also demonstrates the seemingly endless possibilities of the form itself to serve as smart social criticism. Who knows? Maybe 2013 will be the year that Poland snatches the crime fiction crown away from the Swedes and Norwegians. If so, I’ve got a kielbasa in the freezer, ready to be fired up.