In The Spotlight: Marek Krajewski’s Death in Breslau

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. ‘Hardboiled’ crime fiction often features moral ambiguity; and the sleuths in them frequently do things that we might find reprehensible. But they have to operate within a sometimes violent and dysfunctional context, where the rules are different. So it’s not always easy to say what the ‘right’ thing is to do. As an example of this sort of novel, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Marek Krajewski’s Death in Breslau, the first of his Eberhard Mock novels.

It’s 1934, and Mock is a Breslau (Wroclaw) detective and Criminal Counsellor to the police department. His involvement in this story begins when his assistant Max Forstner tracks him down to a brothel to let him know that Baron Olivier van der Malten’s seventeen-year-old daughter Marietta, and her governess, Françoise Debroux, have been raped and murdered, with scorpions found in Marietta’s remains. There’s also a cryptic inscription near the bodies. Mock owes his career to the protection of the baron and his Masonic Lodge brothers, so he’s not in a position to refuse when van der Malten summons him to take personal charge of the case.

The official police explanation, and one that’s sanctioned by the Gestapo, is that a Jewish man by the name of Isidor Friedlander is responsible for the crimes. But the Baron is sure that’s not the case. Since Mock is beholden to him, he agrees when the Baron insists that he work with Criminal Assistant Herbert Anwaldt to find out the truth about these murders. So Mock and Anwaldt begin looking into the case.

One of the leads they explore is the cryptic inscription that was left with the bodies. For information on this, they work with Dr. Georg Maass, an expert on Oriental languages and the occult. With his expertise, they learn of a horrible 13th Century crime committed by a Crusader and a Turk against the children of a Yazidi. That crime turns out to have repercussions in the modern era, and as Mock and Andwaldt work the crime, they also have to dig through history to find out the truth behind the murders.

Much of the action in the novel takes place during the early and mid-1930’s, as the Gestapo come to power. At the time, the city is called Breslau and is part of Germany, so Mock and his team have every reason to be concerned about Nazi interest in what they’re doing. This is particularly true given the Nazi dislike of Masonry, and given the local Nazi authorities’ satisfaction with their case against Friedlander. In fact, in one small sub-plot of this story, Mock becomes aware that there’s a Gestapo informant among his staff.

Breslau/Wroclaw is a border city in the area between Germany and Poland, so there’s a strong Polish influence in the area, too. Krajewski depicts life in this multicultural landscape as Mock and Anwaldt go back and forth between the two countries and talk to people of several different backgrounds.

This is a noir story, so several of the characters aren’t what they seem on the surface. Mock knows that he can’t really be sure exactly whom to trust. And almost all of the characters, including Mock, have their ways of being manipulative and deceptive. No-one’s hands are really clean, so to speak, in this story. Because this is a hardboiled novel, there is also great deal of violence, some of it brutal. Readers who dislike a lot of violence in their novels will notice that. In that way, this isn’t an easy novel to read.

Mock has been shaped by this culture and has to survive within it. He has some university background in classics and philosophy, but is a very pragmatic person, even when it mans doing things we might find reprehensible. He’s somewhat fatalistic, and certainly isn’t cheerful or optimistic about much. That said, though, he has no patience with the Gestapo’s bullying ways or with some of the deception he uncovers. In this case, he’s on ‘the side of the angels’ as he works to find out the truth.

Mock’s relationship with Anwaldt is another element in this novel. He starts out by not caring much for Anwaldt, and it’s not hard to see why. Andwaldt has been drinking too much (although he does try to sober up for this case), and Mock isn’t inclined to find most people likeable anyway. But as the novel goes on, he develops a bond of sympathy with Andwaldt, and finds ways to take care of him. For his part, Anwaldt knows how much he owes Mock; and in his way, he is loyal.

The story is told in a very roughly chronological way, except for the beginning chapter. There is some movement back and forth through time as we learn about the personal histories of some of the characters, and as we learn about the 13th-Century incident that seems to be at the core of this case. However, each chapter is clearly marked with the place and time, so readers can easily follow the story line. Still, those who prefer a strictly linear novel will notice this pattern.

As you would expect, given the sort of story this is, the solution isn’t a happy one. Finding out the truth not only doesn’t make things all right again, it makes things even more difficult for some characters. This isn’t light reading, and the end of the novel is in keeping with that. Still, readers do learn what happened and why, and without spoiling the story, I can say that some characters ‘get theirs.’

Death in Breslau is a hardboiled story of murder in the distinctive Polish/German area around Wroclaw/Breslau during the early years of the Nazi regime. It features a pragmatic sleuth who does his best to function in a very chaotic world. It also features a past/present connection that has a real impact. But what’s your view? Have you read Death in Breslau? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 7 December/Tuesday 8 December – Blue Monday – Nicci French

Monday 14 December/Tuesday 15 December – White Heat – M.J. McGrath

Monday 21 December/Tuesday 22 December – A Madras Miasma – Brian Stoddart


Filed under Death in Breslau, Marek Krajewski, Uncategorized

Consider Yourself One of Us*

Fittiing InCulture is very deeply ingrained into the way we look at the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we naturally feel more comfortable with people who understand our culture, at least somewhat, and can operate effectively within it. Even subtle aspects of culture, such as physical distance between speakers or the ‘right’ formulaic expressions, can make interactions go more smoothly. In fact, research shows that those pragmatic things are more important than things such as accent, pronunciation, or standard grammar when it comes to social interaction.

If you travel outside your own culture, you’ve probably already experienced that bit of camaraderie when you know how to order the kind of coffee you want, or the ‘right’ thing to do about tipping. You may not know a lot of the language, or you may have a different accent, but those little cultural things can still make you feel more welcome.

Crime fiction is full of incidents like this, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how small our world has become. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to add many more than I ever could.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia takes place mostly at an archaeological dig site and expedition team house a few hours from Baghdad. The dig is being led by noted expert Eric Leidner. He’s brought his wife Louise along, and she’s been having a great deal of difficulty since their arrival. In fact, Leidner decides to hire a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to attend to his wife, who claims to see hands tapping at her window and has other fears. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to look into the case. At first, Nurse Leatheran is not inclined towards much confidence in Poirot, and at least part of her concern is that he’s not English. Her view begins to change when Poirot insists that she have tea with him and Dr. Reilly, who first introduced her to Leidner.


‘‘Oh, no doctor,’ I protested. ‘I couldn’t think of such a thing.’
Poirot gave me a little friendly tap on the shoulder. Quite an English tap, not a foreign one.
‘You, ma soeur, will do as you are told,’ he said.’


Nurse Leatheran agrees, and as she gets to know Poirot a little, she sees that even though he’s not English, he does understand the culture well enough to put her at her ease.

In Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we are introduced to ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, who’s now living in Bangkok. Rafferty is a rough travel writer, who’s written some popular books on adventure travel in different places. He’s also gotten a reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. And that’s why Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s always been close to her Uncle Claus, who lives in Bangkok. But she hasn’t heard from him for a few months, and has gotten concerned about him. She’s heard that Rafferty is good at finding people. And even though she’s Australian and he’s American, they have more in common culturally than she feels she has with the Thai culture. Rafferty understands the local culture and speaks Thai, so he’s well-suited for the job. One lead on this case takes Rafferty to the home of a very wealthy and enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty information he wants if he’ll do a job for her. Soon, he finds that both cases are much more involved and dangerous than he thought.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, private detective Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Andrea Curtin. She is an ex-pat American who moved to Botswana when her husband took a position there. When it was time to return to the US, their son decided to stay, and joined an eco-commune there. When he died, the police reported that he was probably killed by a wild animal, but his mother has always wanted to know the real truth. She wants closure, and asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her son. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s reaction to her new client:


‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’


Andrea Curtin’s understanding of the local culture, even if she doesn’t speak all of the different languages, puts Mma. Ramotswe more at her ease, and helps to create a rapport between the two women.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was volunteering at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she jumped, or fell, or was pushed from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck has never believed the suicide explanation, and he wants Keeney to find out the truth. So she travels to Pattaya to get some answers. Part of the trail leads to a bar frequented by American military personnel, and Keeney goes there to follow up. She soon finds herself needing to make a quick escape from an overzealous contact and manages to do so, only to end up in another predicament when she blunders into a room where a group of kratoey, ‘ladyboys,’ are preparing for a pageant:


‘Jane had to think fast.
‘Younger sisters,’ she said with a wai, ‘my name is Jayne. There’s a tall, dark, handsome Marine chasing me and I don’t want anything to do with him. I need to hide fast. Can you help me?’

There was a moment’s stunned silence as they took in Jayne’s ability to speak Thai, her flattering form of address, and the implications of her predicament. Then the room burst into a flurry of activity.’

The beauty queens help Jayne, not least because she understands the culture well enough to behave in the ‘correct’ way within it.

There’s also Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, which introduces DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. They are called in to investigate when there’s a fire in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. In the ruins of the shed is the body of a man who was very likely a foreigner. If that’s true, then this might be a hate crime; hence Zigic and Ferreira’s involvement. Zigic is third-generation English; Ferreira is originally Portuguese. Ferreira has learned the English way of doing things, and knows how to operate within the culture well enough to have gained some acceptance. Yet she still maintains some of her own culture, and her fluency in Portuguese turns out to be useful in this case. Her case is an interesting example that shows how immigrants and those with immigrant backgrounds can find more acceptance if they understand how to operate within their new culture. At the same time, this doesn’t mean at all that simply knowing some cultural nuances will automatically mark someone as ‘one of us.’

There are a lot of other examples of crime-fictional characters who’ve mastered some of the nuances of another culture (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). It’s an important skill to have if you want to fit in within a culture that’s not your own. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Consider Yourself.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Eva Dolan, Timothy Hallinan

Far From a Maddening Crowd*

CrowdsThis photograph was taken at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a major transportation hub, so thousands of people go through it each day. And most of them are so intent on their own business that they don’t usually pay much attention to anyone else. And because of the surging crowds, it’s hard to notice everything and everyone, even if you do pay attention. So it’s fairly easy for someone to fade into the background, as the saying goes.

That sort of anonymity is one reason that train stations, buses and other crowded places can be such effective settings in a crime novel. As Josephine Tey shows in The Man in the Queue, when there is a large group of disparate people together in one place, it’s easy for one person to, quite literally, get away with murder. That’s in fact what happens in the novel when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is stabbed. He’s waiting with a large crowd of other people who’ve gathered at the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of the hit show Did You Know? Everyone is so self-absorbed that no-one notices the murder. For inspector Alan Grant, it’s frustrating to have so many witnesses but so little useful information from them.

A similar sort of thing happens in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro is waiting for a bus along with a group of other people. Many others are walking by on the street. Despite the number of witnesses, no-one sees it when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. At first, her death is put down to a terrible accident. But then it comes out that she had been to see Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa a short time before her death. At the time, he wasn’t available to speak to her, and she agreed to return later. Now Espinosa is very curious about what she wanted and why she would have died so soon after coming to the police station, so he and the team begin to look into her death more closely. It turns out that this death was no accident.

Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit also includes a very effective large-crowd sort of murder. One afternoon, Marko Meixner is among a large crowd at a busy Sydney train station. When he is pushed under an oncoming train, New South Wales Police Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene. At first, it looks as though this was a terrible accident. But when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill arrive, they are shocked to see that this is the same man they rescued from a one-car crash earlier in the day. At that time, Meixner said that he was in terrible danger, and that they would be, too, if they spent any time with him. And now it seems that his warning wasn’t just an irrational rambling from a mentally ill person. What’s interesting about this particular murder is that, even with CCTV cameras in the station, Marconi and Shakespeare can’t follow individuals in the crowd well enough to work out who pushed the victim under the train.

Large, crowded places also serve another crime-fictional purpose for the author. They bring together lots of disparate people from all over. This means that any one character could have all sorts of interactions without contrivance. In fact, Hercule Poirot makes mention of this in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. He is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. Since he’s there, and is possibly the last person who saw the victim alive, he gets involved in the investigation. Early in the novel, before the murder, he’s talking with another guest who’s just said that the hotel isn’t the sort of place you’d find a body. Poirot begs to differ and explains himself this way:


”Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.”


It’s the sort of place where people from all over gather, and where they don’t have to explain why they’re there. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

We see this sort of gathering together of disparate people in K.B. Owen’s Unseemly Haste, too. It’s 1898, and Concordia Wells is on a cross-country train journey from Hartford, where she teaches at a women’s college, to San Francisco. She’s taking the journey with her friend Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton, who has her own agenda. Along the way, Concordia runs up against crooked card players, fraud, a newspaper reporter in hiding, and a couple of murders. One of the elements in this novel is the number of very different kinds of people who are aboard the train. They come from all sorts of places, and all have their own agendas.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant deals with trouble in large crowds too. In both Tapas on the Ramblas and Date With a Sheesha, the trail of a case leads to large market bazaars where crowds of people mingle and where nobody pays a lot of attention to any one person. It’s easy to get lost, and easy to find yourself very vulnerable in such a crowd. And in both of those novels, that market setting is used very effectively to bring all sorts of people together.

And that’s what happens in places such as train stations, buses, markets and so on. They gather together all kinds of people from all over. And people are so intent on what they’re doing that they don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them. Even when they should…


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blackfoot’s Take a Train.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

If You Look the Part You’ll Get the Job*

20151126_092844-1The conference name badge and backpack you see in this ‘photo serve a couple of important purposes. The backpack is, of course, handy for carrying notes, a pen, the conference handbook, and the many other little things conference delegates need when they go to different sessions. And the name badge makes it easy for people to introduce themselves or discreetly check if they really do remember that person from the last conference.

But name badges, backpacks and the like serve another purpose too. They identify a person as belonging to a group. If you walk into a conference venue with your name badge, you’re immediately accepted (and forgiven for any  ‘I’m a foreigner – sorry!’ blunders you may make).  No-one questions your presence. It’s quite different if you walk in without the name badge, backpack or both.

Those sorts of identifiers show up a in crime fiction, too, and they can mark a person as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging.’ They don’t always take the form of a name badge, but they can play a role. To give you one very general example, medical mysteries and thrillers (e.g. Michael Palmer’s work, Robin Cook’s, and so on) often have a plot point that includes a character who ducks into a hospital changing room and dons a lab coat. No-one really takes notice of a person in a lab coat in that environment. It’s a symbol that identifies someone as belonging there. There are more specific examples, too, of the way this works in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna move to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. On the surface, Lymestock seems to be an idyllic small town, peaceful and just right for recuperation. It doesn’t turn out to be that way, though. One day, Joanna and Jerry receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Then, they learn that other villagers, too, are getting such notes. When one of those letters results in a suicide, and another death follows that, the police investigate. But, as the local vicar’s wife knows, Miss Marple is far better suited than are the police to find out the truth in a small, closed-mouth village like Lymestock. One of the interesting side issues in this novel is the local perception of Joanna. She’s a very smart dresser who wears makeup. This identifies her immediately as not belonging. And there are plenty of people who think that she shouldn’t wear makeup and should dress more ‘village.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights introduces readers to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In one plot thread, a local drug user nearly dies right near Chapman’s bakery, and she finds herself slowly getting drawn into the mystery of how it happened. There’ve been several overdoses in the area, some of which have led to death. The trail leads Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen to a Goth club called Blood Lines. A person can’t just walk into the club, so Chapman and Cohen are going to have to look as though they belong. Chapman gets some help from her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. The dress she wears, and the boots, make her look exactly right for the club, so that no-one questions her presence there. This allows her and Cohen to find out the truth about the drug deaths.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly Morriss and the team she works with investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. A search into the victim’s background reveals that she was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to anyone else in that profession who might have known her. When one of Morriss’ contacts disappears, and another is badly beaten, it’s clear that Morriss will have to dig deeper. She wants to talk to other sex workers, but of course, they wouldn’t be exactly open to talking to a police officer. But she finally persuades one of her contacts to let her join a group of ‘the girls.’ Morriss knows she’s going to have to fit in, and that includes thinking about how she identifies herself. Her final choice of clothes isn’t perfect, but,

‘…at least it wasn’t blue and no one would ask her to read the meter.’

In this case, wearing anything like a badge or other identifier would immediately have marked Morriss as ‘not belonging.’

Betty Web’s PI Lena Jones needs to find a way to look as though she belongs in Desert Wives. She and her PI partner Jimmy Siswan have a difficult case. Esther Corbett has hired them to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a secretive polygamous religious group called Purity. They succeed, only to learn that the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot and killed on the same night that they got Rebecca. What’s worse, Esther is implicated. If she’s going to rescue her client, Jones will have to find out who really shot the victim. But she won’t be able to enter the community without seeming to belong. So she borrows a

‘…long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length calico…’

that serves as an identifier for the women who live at Purity. Suffice it to say, the clothes Jones wears during this assignment are not at all like her usual choices.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, works as a domestic. She’s a Black woman in a world where the rich and powerful are very much White. But nobody questions her presence if she wears a uniform. It’s a badge that marks her as an employee; in that sense, it makes her invisible. She’s part of ‘the help,’ so very few people pay any attention to what she does as she investigates.

And that’s the thing about name badges, lab coats, uniforms and so on. They give a person a certain kind of group membership (e.g. conference delegate, ‘the help,’ hospital employee, and so on). And that means that people don’t always think to question what that person is really doing.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s To Have and Have Not.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Betty Webb, Kerry Greenwood, Maureen Carter, Robin Cook

I Wanna Show My Gratitude*

2015-11-25 11.55.54

As I post this, it’s Thanksgiving in the US. If you know that tradition, then you know it’s usually associated with big family meals (especially with turkey as the main course) and travel. Well….I’m doing the travel thing this year, but I’m not celebrating the way I usually do, since I’m out of the country.

Still, there are lots of things I’m grateful for this week, and this seems like a good time to mention some of them. Besides my family…..


I Am Grateful For…



That’s right, you. You folks are a constant source of support, inspiration and friendship, and I am grateful for that. This year in particular I’m grateful for you, because of your kind help with my research. If it weren’t for your help, I couldn’t have done the study that brought me to this conference; so really, I’ve brought you with me. Thank you for that, and for being friends with me.


The University of Auckland

The University of Auckland has done a terrific job of playing hosts to us delegates from all over the world. Friendly, helpful people, lovely surroundings, and generosity about the use of facilities, have made the conference a real success.


Paardekooper and Associates

These consummate experts at events and conferences have made sure that everything ran smoothly. Questions? Answered. Lost? Found. Timing? Spot on. Delegates? Fully informed about everything. Attitude? Always professional and friendly. Every time. Food? Erm – let’s just say I’m not weighing myself for at least a month after I get back…


The Language, Education and Diversity Conference Organising Committee

The Committee did a fantastic job of inviting interesting plenary speakers, including a wide variety of perspectives, and creating a well-structured conference that allowed for a lot of learning. I’m returning to the US with plenty of new ideas. The committee chose a group of informed and interesting presenters. And they chose me, too.


P.B. Technologies

This is a great computer sales and service company. Picture this: you’re in another country at a conference when your laptop crashes. By crashing, I mean not even a welcome screen. What do you do? I was lucky to find P.B. Technologies. High-quality customer service, fair prices, quick solutions, problem solved. Easy as. My computer still needs some more work, but if it weren’t for the good people at P.B., I’d probably have to buy a new laptop.


Hotel Pullman Auckland

Top-notch, friendly, professional service, even when you’re bedraggled, dirty, exhausted and cranky after twenty hours of travel. Terrific online connectivity centre, comfortable, quiet rooms with nice little touches of luxury. The professionals there do more than just their jobs. They make real efforts to ensure that each guest’s needs are met. And they do it without fanfare.


Often enough we’re quick to complain when things don’t go right. I’m guilty myself, at times. But it’s just as important, to me anyway, to say ‘thanks’ when things go very well.

To all my US readers, Happy Thanksgiving! To all of you, wherever you are, whatever you celebrate, my best to you!


*Note: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Gratitude.


Filed under Uncategorized