For several years the label “Polish retro crime fiction” has had one single representative – Marek Krajewski, whose series of novels about the adventures of a policeman from Breslau called Eberhard Mock continue to enjoy vast popularity. But now Krajewski has some dangerous competition from a Lublin-based writer called Marcin Wroński. Over the years Wroński has moved from one genre to another, from the post-modern novel via children’s fiction to fantasy. Finally in 2007 he published his first retro crime novel, Commissioner Maciejewski, and a year later the next part of the series, Commissioner Maciejewski: Cinema Venus. And in my view he has done his best work as a writer of crime fiction.
The action is set in the early 1930s in the provincial city of Lublin. The leading character is Deputy Commissioner Zygmunt Maciejewski, known as Zyga, from the investigative department at the city police headquarters, the best sleuth in Lublin and the greater area. Once a promising boxer (hence the broken nose), he is a slovenly, arrogant man with an ironical, caustic sense of humour. He is also a passionate reader of Kafka and is inclined to be insubordinate – but at the same time he has “that special something” every good cop should have, an instinct that makes him extremely good at pursuing criminals. Although the action is set in the inter-war period, Wroński writes about issues that are still relevant today. In the first book, as he seeks the killers of the editor-in-chief of the city newspaper and the censor, Maciejewski uncovers an affair involving politicians, businessmen and media people. In the second he has to enter the murky world of sex slave traffickers and the porn industry.
Here in Wroński’s novels the reader will find everything a good crime book should have: a carefully constructed intrigue, some interesting sub plots (not least the one involving Maciejewski’s professional and personal problems in the second book), a leading man whom it is possible to like, and some clear-cut supporting characters (here I am mainly thinking of the commissioner’s colleagues from the investigative department, Zielny, Fałniewicz and Kraft). And on top of that we get some bonuses: a portrait of pre-war Lublin full of details and curiosities, and a sophisticated style, because Wroński is an above-average stylist, which in the case of crime writers is fairly unusual.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Marcin Wroński (born 1972) is a novelist, columnist, editor, lyricist and cabaret sketch writer. He lives in Lublin. The first in his series of retro crime novels was Commissioner Maciejewski: Murder Under Censorship (2007).
From dawn the day was almost unearthly – perfect for driving out of the city, not suffocating in a train compartment. Least of all the slow train departing at nine forty-one, which might drag itself into Dęblin around noon, from where it had another hour and a half to go in the worst of the heat. There was in fact an express that evening – three hours in a pleasantly cool atmosphere, on top of which it stopped in the city centre at the Main Station, not the East Station in the Praga district. But Lilli Byoros was adamant. She packed a few essentials into a small lady’s suitcase made of yellow leather; even at breakfast she wouldn’t part with her bag, as if she’d caught a sort of travel fever and was obsessively worried she’d forget something.
The evening before Maciejewski had come home late, plainly not in a mood for romantically spending the last few hours with his lover before she left, like in a melodrama. Almost all night he had crashed about the dark house, until finally the half-asleep Miss Byoros had heard the sound of glass breaking in the pantry.
“Let him drink,” she’d thought, turning onto her other side.
He wasn’t keen to talk in the morning either. He hardly ate a thing, but just poured himself more coffee now and then.
“You’re hiding something from me, aren’t you?” he finally stammered.
Lilli looked at him closely and burst out laughing.
“What is it?” he asked in an offended tone.
“Nothing, just that you’re starting to resemble the jealous fool, Zyggie. Just like in your favourite film, Pandora’s Box. If I were Louise Brooks, I should shoot you.”
“It was Doctor Schön who wanted to shoot Lulu,” he grunted, and started looking for the matches.
“Well, then, you’d better hurry up.” Lilli quickly grabbed her bag and suitcase, because a horn had just hooted outside. “Bye, Zyggie!” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
“Bye, Lea…” muttered Maciejewski quietly.
She froze for a moment, but when she turned her head there was just an innocent smile playing on her face.
“What did you say?”
“That I think it’s time to say goodbye, Lea.”
He stood up and walked towards her like Doctor Schön in Pabst’s film – tall, well-built, seeming to tower over his petite lover in every respect except beauty. But Zyga wasn’t downcast like him, nor was he desperate. He looked as if the coffee had done its job and he had finally woken up.
He took out an old document, folded many times, showed it to Miss Byoros and then put it back in the pocket of his unbuttoned uniform.
“Lea Birsz, born 1906 in the appropriately named town of Wiedźmo, Baranowicki County.”
“Zyggie…” she said, faking amusement, and threatening him with her small clutch bag.
“I’m as much Zyggie as you’re Lilli,” he said, shrugging. “But I won’t say it’s been fun. Unfortunately you’re not going anywhere.” With two fingers he touched the girl’s shoulder. “Miss Birsz also known as Byoros, I arrest you in the name of the law on a charge of profiting from prostitution. When the lady police officer gets here, you’ll be searched.”
“Afraid to touch me, are you?” she snorted in his face.
“I’m sorry, unfortunately the law forbids me to.” He spread his hands. “You can wait in the drawing room. Do you want some coffee? There’s some in the jug, you’re welc…”
He didn’t finish his sentence, because suddenly he felt the touch of cold steel against his ribs. The bag had fallen to the ground, and a small Browning had appeared in Lilli’s hand.
“Another merit of a villa out of town,” she hissed. “No one will hear the shot. Especially from a small-bore pistol. Hands up!”
They heard the horn again.
“Oh yes, the chauffeur!” smiled Miss Byoros. “Call him in here. Quick, or I’ll shoot!”
Maciejewski opened the door and leaned out.
“Mr Florczak! We’ve got a problem. Please come inside.”
The taxi driver ran up, thinking he was coming to help carry out a trunk. And there wasn’t much time if they were going to catch the train to Warsaw.
“Oh bloo-dy hell,” he uttered in amazement as soon as he saw the barrel of the lady’s pistol pointing at his nose. “You’ve got me into a right mess!”
“Car keys,” demanded Lilli. “And both of you against the wall.”
“‘The bloody finale to a scandalous affair’, they’re sure to write in the papers,” noted Zyga calmly. “But you don’t have to hurry, you must have given up the idea of travelling by state railway, haven’t you? Let’s admit the truth here at the end, so it’s just like in the movies?”
“Oh!” cried Lilli, putting a hand to her brow in just the same way as Smosarska in The Leper whenever she was about to faint. “What a mésalliance, what a drama! Till a bullet do us part…” She laughed. “I didn’t know you were a masochist. So you’re wondering what I needed you for?”
“No, in fact I know that very well.” Maciejewski leaned comfortably against the wall.
He took absolutely no notice of the taxi driver’s imploring look. But Mr Florczak had been reading The Secret Detective, and was well aware that if she told them everything, there’d be all the more reason why they’d have to die. Didn’t Maciejewski realise that?!
“There’s nothing like an undercover agent who doesn’t even know he gets it,” Zyga went on. “I’m more curious to know why you needed that lark with the phoney kidnapping. There, in Frascatti, if my hand had shaken…”
“You might have shot me? I’d have died in your arms, and you’d have laid lilies on my grave…” She was clearly warming up now. Just as Maciejewski thought, she’d never be able to forgive herself if she ended this business with two shots no one would even hear. For her that would be like ejaculatio praecox for a man. “There’s the risk, there’s the fun. And the cash, of course. And you had to believe you were saving me from… how did they put it in your rag?… a gehenna of moral and physical torment!”
“They offered her up to you like a bitch on heat to a dog!” said the taxi driver, and spat on the floor.
“I thought you looked like a smart fellow straightaway, Mr Florczak,” smiled Miss Byoros. “Whereas you, Zyggie, are suffering from megalomania. Getting stool pigeons at your place was handy too, but we were more keen for you to arrest a couple of provincial pimps. Good reports for you, and less competition for us. And who’d have thought a closed case wasn’t so closed at all, right?”
“But someone did,” muttered Zyga, “and found your birth certificate. And even watched one of your filthy films that you shot here.”
“You saw it?” she said joyfully. “It’s good, isn’t it? Because who on earth would know better what guys want to watch?” She looked at her watch in a theatrical way. “Unfortunately it’s time for me to go. Aren’t you going to say something, Mr Florczak, that you’ve got a wife and children? Well, tough… And as for you, Zyggie, it wasn’t very wise of you. As you were so late to cotton on, you’d have been better off playing dumb to the very end. Now hand over my certificate, or would you rather I removed it from your stiffening fingers myself?”
“I repeat, you’re under arrest!” roared Maciejewski, and the taxi driver glanced at him in horror.
Just then some hinges creaked deep inside the house. Lilli drew back, and without taking her eyes off the two men, aimed the barrel at the back entrance to the villa.
“Good morning.” Zielny was standing in the doorway, and tipped his hat. “Would you please hand it over, Madam…”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones