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