Wojciech Chmielarz is only just over thirty, yet without a doubt he can already be regarded as one of Poland’s leading crime writers. With his three-volume series featuring police superintendent Jakub Mortka (The Fire-Raiser, The Doll Farm and Fervour, the last of which won the High Calibre Award in 2015 for the best Polish crime novel of the year), Chmielarz has proved that crime fiction doesn’t have to rely on psychologising, moralising or shocking cruelty to pack a punch. More important are understanding what police work is really like, knowing specific details of the criminal world, being aware of social issues and using straightforward language, combined with a talent for constructing complex, unexpected plots. In plain terms, although what we have here is well produced pop culture, Chmielarz is quite simply credible – as a reader you believe that his story really happened, or at least could have.
The Vampire is the first in a new crime series. The story is set in Gliwice, or more broadly, a large Upper Silesian conurbation. The central character is not a policeman this time, but a private detective of sorts. Why “of sorts”? Because Dawid Wolski, as he is called, does not inspire confidence. This failed lawyer is a notorious liar and an irresponsible, sociopathic ne’er-do-well. He can only work as a detective thanks to his father’s connections, because on his own he’s fairly ignorant and not much good at anything.
Chmielarz has taken quite a risk by inventing a character who’s a loser and anti-hero, and casting him in the role of protagonist – according to the customary rules of the genre, most readers aren’t eager to identify with someone who compromises himself every step of the way and whom they have basically no chance of ever liking. That’s why Chmielarz has given himself an emergency exit: there’s a traumatic reason for the young detective’s awkward sociopathy. But even so, Wolski doesn’t prompt sympathy. And a good thing too, because by way of compensation Chmielarz offers us a fabulous plot, and a window into the hermetic, hidden world of teenagers, full of sexual tension, consumerist desires, drug trips and battles for status – a world that’s only accessible to a man who doesn’t wear a uniform and isn’t much older than the teenagers himself.
Naturally in The Vampire we have a deceased person too – twenty-year-old Mateusz Polak, who in mysterious circumstances has jumped off the roof of a tower block. He didn’t leave a letter, but he did leave a single mother who cannot come to terms with her son’s death, or with the prosecutor’s unequivocal decision to regard it as suicide. Wolski’s task is to re-investigate the case, and to look for possible evidence of murder.
And here Chmielarz takes another risk, because Mateusz was not a model of virtue either. The portrait of him that emerges as a result of Wolski’s chaotic detective work is reminiscent of the teenage Anders Breivik, as described in the shocking book about him, One of Us, by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad. Breivik too was brought up by a toxic mother on her own, and was desperate to be accepted, suffering failure after failure while fantasising about his own imaginary advantages over his peers, a dull fellow with no sense of humour who clung like a leech to all sorts of youth groups. The obvious difference between Breivik and Mateusz is that Breivik went on to become a mass murderer, while Mateusz decided to kill himself. But did someone help him to die?
So here we have a loser on the trail of another loser – The Vampire tells a superb story based on this idea. Along the way it also reminds us that being a teenager in the era of late capitalism is not a particularly comfortable experience. This is the point in life when you either become a front runner or get left behind. Your whole future can depend on a single word or gesture – make a mistake and you lose face, then get pitched over the side like unwanted ballast, while your faithful friends find themselves new and better pals. And it’s all broadcast live via social media.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones