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Old wounds open in Poland – but not how you think

A crime novel from Poland, go figure.

Zygmunt Miloszewski is a well-known fiction writer in Poland, earning acclaim in 2005 at the age of 26 with his first book, The Intercom. He made his debut in English in 2010 with Entanglement – and now, 2013 confirms his stature with A Grain of Truth, published by Bitter Lemon Press of London.

Poles, as popular conjecture and Miloszewski’s characters portray, are a disconsolate congregation bedeviled by their complicity with the Nazi Party before and during WWII as well as their rationalizations for the depreciation of the Jews in Poland after the war and unabated to this day, as depicted in A Grain of Truth.

The book takes place in 2009 in the provincial burg of Sandomierz, a train ride north from Warsaw, Poland’s capital city, where beauty surrounds a compliant population of Catholics embittered by their collective guilt and barely restrained belief in the self-effacing myths of Jewish atrocities. There of course were no Jewish atrocities, but in order to endure pangs of conscience and assuage congenital anti-Semitism, fictions were invented to malign the Jew and implicate him in every crime, stillbirth, infidelity or lost football game. And it was among these people of Sandomierz the naked body of one of the town’s most esteemed women was found at daybreak, her throat viciously cut. And in the bushes, not 20 feet away, lay a rectangular mirror-bright knife 12 inches long by 4 inches wide with blunted end, no curvature and razor sharp. This strange instrument, too conveniently found, was soon identified as a “chalef,” a knife used for the ritual slaughter of animals by a Jewish butcher.

The case is assigned to a veteran prosecutor recently transferred from Warsaw, Teodor Szacki. In Poland, a prosecutor acts as lead detective in homicide cases, and this is Szacki’s first big case in Sandomierz. His experience, combined with unambiguous methods, confound his assistant prosecutor and the gumshoe police inspector assigned the footwork – both of whom are accustomed to investigating stolen cellphones and bicycles.

One murder leads to another and then another. A Grain of Truth is an exciting investigation procedural, but the fascination of the story surrounds the cultural imperfections imbued within the Sandomierz residents, a blinkered belief system thwarting every lead, turn and twist of the plot – bringing the highly intuitive Szacki to a state of derailment that nearly kills him.

A Grain of Truth is the work of a very fine writer who, I suspect, spent years bleeding words onto the page drop by drop, and an equally talented translator stitching up idioms and finding some vowels for English language readers. It’s an exciting intrigue, bona fide literary prose and a fascinating confessional of a country paralyzed by cognitive dissonance.

Murder Ink has showcased some fine crime fiction from Scandinavian countries, France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and various parts of America. Each locality brought with it a culture different from the others and a uniqueness as engaging as the mystery itself. The Poland of A Grain of Truth is in a class by itself, as are the murders and the cultural penumbra obscuring truth.

JeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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