Crime novels can be divided into the kind that feature fast-moving, dynamic action that rivets the reader’s attention, and the kind where the action is unhurried, and various sub-plots are just as crucial as the main crime story. Mariusz Czubaj’s latest novel, The Fifth Beatle, definitely belongs to the second category. It is the fourth in a series starring Katowice-based police profiler, musician and karate expert Rudolf Heinz. And it is the pace of the action that it makes it notably different from the earlier books in the series.
It’s 2012, and the EURO soccer championships are being held in Poland, when the corpse of a twenty-year-old man is found in a hangar at an abandoned military airfield in Pila; someone has deprived him of life in a very inventive way. The case takes on high priority when it turns out that the victim was the son of a businessman who is well known from the media. On top of that, at the crime scene the police find a photograph of the cover of one of the biggest hit records in the history of music, Abbey Road by the Beatles. It’s the perfect mystery for Heinz, who happens to be in Pila, where he is running a course at the local police academy. But months will go by, and more victims will die before the case reaches the dramatic finale that is a regular feature of Czubaj’s novels. And Heinz will have dig deep into the past to uncover a sinister secret that someone has gone to great pains to keep hidden. At the same time Heinz is dealing – successfully – with the case of a psychopathic murderer from Katowice, known as the Handyman, whom Czubaj tersely but artfully describes as “a skilful builder, who turned out to be totally lacking in skills when it came to building normal relationships with women”.
In The Fifth Beatle Czubaj varies the narrative by interweaving chapters in the first person, narrated by Heinz, with chapters in the third person. The first-person chapters describe how Heinz is questioned by an internal commission, tasked with determining whether he has ignored police procedures and broken the law during his inquiry into the murder in Pila and the ones that come after it. The third-person chapters retrospectively tell the reader details of the investigations Heinz has conducted over the past few years. Varying the narrative approach is another pointer to what actually matters most in this crime novel – which to my mind is the issue of old scores, settled or not, and exploring the tensions between the past and the present.
The unhurried but never tedious pace of the action in The Fifth Beatle allows Czubaj to focus more closely on Heinz’s personal ups and downs. And there is a lot happening in the life of this widower, who is a bit of a loner and a bit of an eccentric. His one child, a son, gets married, and soon makes Heinz a grandfather. After losing consciousness during the wedding, Heinz briefly ends up in hospital, which prompts him to wonder whether he should finally change his rather unhealthy habits. His relationship with a psychologist, whom he calls by the pet name Pocahontas, survives a serious crisis. Heinz realizes that he has increasing problems relating to people, at work and in his private life; he’s feeling more and more disconnected from reality, as if there’s a pane of glass between him and his surroundings. Either the world is slipping away from him, or else he’s voluntarily moving away from it, refusing to accept all sorts of things that others accept in his environment. Is it that Heinz has passed a certain point in life too suddenly and uneasily, and is now on the threshold of inevitable old age? To some extent, in Heinz’s attitude, in his increasing weariness and embitterment, we can also see a fundamental resistance to the way things are changing in the present day, in a world that is set on “mobility, movement, and change”. But Heinz doesn’t want to change; he wants to stay true to his values and the things that matter to him and to people of his generation. Even at the cost of losing contact with the world, and being unable to communicate with the next, relentlessly succeeding generations. Hence all the bitterness in The Fifth Beatle, evident for instance in the ending: “He felt that the ties which had once united the generations had been broken for good and all. A rift had appeared, a black hole, an abyss. All that was left at most was an illusory thread of understanding.”
The conclusions this novel draws about existence, society and culture are fairly grim, but are also muted with irony and humour, as ever in Czubaj’s writing. As distinct from most Polish crime writers, who go for a transparent, neutral style, Czubaj has devised an expressive, recognizable style of his own, characterized by well-turned phrases, unobtrusive humour and some memorable epithets, such as the favourite saying of Heinz, who usually ends his spot-on statements with the words: “So much for that.”