Krajewski, Marek - 'Death in Breslau' (translated by Danusia Stok)
DEATH IN BRESLAU opens in 1950 in a psychiatric hospital in Dresden where an unidentified man is very interested in patient Anwaldt, a man who cannot stand insects and other creepy crawlies. After this first chapter, the story jumps back in time to Breslau in 1933 where we meet Counsellor (soon to be Criminal Director) Eberhard Mock the lead character in the quartet of novels that the author has written about Breslau, this being the first one to be translated into English. Breslau is now the Polish city of Wroclaw but previously it was part of the German Empire, but with strong links to Poland.
Mock is called in to investigate the murder of the daughter of the powerful Baron von der Malten, a man to whom Mock owes much of his professional success. The daughter and her maid were murdered in a train carriage and death was by scorpion bites. Words are written in blood in an unfamiliar language on the carriage wall. Tracking down importers and dealers in scorpions leads Mock to the Jewish Isidor Friedlander and his daughter. Before Mock can bring him in, the Gestapo arrest him and force a confession out of him. Mock wants to please the Baron and knows a guilty verdict will further his career so takes the credit. A few months later though, the Baron receives a package containing some of his dead daughter's clothing. The murderer is still at large.
Criminal Assistant Herbert Anwaldt is sent from Berlin to conduct a discreet and independent investigation - to find the real murderer.
Mock is not your usual 'hero' character. He spends his Friday nights in a brothel, playing chess games in which the moves have significant implications for the night's activities. He loves ancient literature. He also has something on everyone and is not afraid to use that information to further an investigation. He will even go as far as to engineer deadly events so as to protect himself. Contrarily his affection for Anwaldt seems genuine.
Breslau is portrayed vividly, with the fear engendered by the Gestapo and the oppressively hot summer weather making for a claustrophobic read. The motive for and identity of the murderer is not something that can be divined by the reader as it has its roots in the long distant past.
DEATH IN BRESLAU makes for a very unusual read which offers both the intrigue of a thriller as well as an insight into pre-war Breslau. I found it a bit hard going at times as there are many characters, some of whom only make fleeting appearances, before disappearing for many pages and when they turn up again I have to scratch my head to remember who they are (a cast of characters would have been of great help to me); but it's definitely worth the effort, especially for the unexpected ending.
Read another review of DEATH IN BRESLAU.
Karen Meek, England