Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s first crime novel, Entanglement, was a big success, acclaimed by the literary critics as well as the readers. It won the prestigious High Calibre Award for the best Polish crime novel, and a film was made based on it, with a star-studded cast, by Polish standards. The second book in the series about the adventures of Prosecutor Teodor Szacki confirms that this success was not just accidental.
In A Grain of Truth, Miłoszewski builds on the classic model of the custodian of the law who has been through the mill. Recently divorced, at his own request Szacki is transferred from Warsaw to Sandomierz, where he wants to set up a new life for himself. He soon realises he has made a mistake. He is finding the sleepy, provincial town where nothing ever happens more and more boring and frustrating until – of course – along comes a case that lives up to his expectations and ambitions. At short intervals the following people are murdered: a local social benefactress, her politician husband, and a local businessman who holds patently right-wing views. The killer’s modus operandi implies ritual murder, which in a city where historical relations between the Poles and the Jews were extremely painful and complicated is a highly sensitive issue. For a long time the prosecutor lets himself be deceived by the murderer, who lays false trails for his pursuers, but in the end he catches him, and the motives for the crimes become banally obvious.
Miłoszewski succeeds in creating an interesting central character, and keeps a steady hand on a complex crime plot that has us in suspense to the final page. He adds something extra to his novels, which makes them more than just ordinary crime fiction. What exactly is it? Some thoughts about issues that Polish society is still struggling with – in vain. In Entanglement it was the issue of ‘lustration’ – the exposure of those who collaborated with the authorities in People’s Poland – and squaring accounts with the communist past, and in A Grain of Truth it is anti-Semitism and scores that remain to be settled between Poles and Jews.
To put it in a nutshell, Miłoszewski not only provides the reader with an entertaining read, but also makes him pause for thought. And only true masters of the fiction genre are able to do that.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Zygmunt Miłoszewski (born 1976) is a journalist and novelist. His first novel, The Intercom, was published in 2005 to high acclaim. In 2006 he published a novel for young readers, The Adder Mountains, and in 2007 the crime novel Entanglement. He is now working on the final instalment of his planned trilogy featuring Prosecutor Teodor Szacki.
The courthouse was ugly. Its solid bulk may have looked modern when it was built in the 1990s, but now it looked like a Gypsy palace converted into a public service building. Its steps, chrome railings, green stone and irregular surfaces didn’t suit the surrounding architecture, or even the building itself; there was something apologetic about its green colour, as if it were trying to hide its own ugliness against the cemetery trees. The
courtroom consistently developed the style of the whole block, and the most eye-catching item in this space, which looked like the conference room at a second-rate corporation, were the green, hospital-style vertical blinds.
Scowling and disgusted, Szacki was mentally bemoaning his surroundings, even once he had put on his gown and sat down in the seat reserved for the prosecution. On the other side he had the defendant and his counsel. Hubert Huby was a nice old boy of seventy. He had thick, still greying hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a charming, modest smile. The defence counsel, probably a public service lawyer, was the picture of misery and despair. His gown was not done up, his hair was unwashed, his shoes weren’t polished and his moustache hadn’t been trimmed – he prompted the suspicion that he probably smelled bad. Just like the whole case, thought Szacki with rising irritation, but finishing off all his predecessor’s cases had been a condition for getting the job in Sandomierz.
Finally the judge appeared. She was a young lass who looked as if she’d only just graduated from high school, but at least the trial had started.
‘Mr Prosecutor?’ said the judge, giving him a nice smile after completing the formalities; no judge in Warsaw ever smiled, and if he did, it was out of malice, when he caught someone in ignorance of the regulations.
Teodor Szacki stood up and automatically adjusted his gown.
‘Your Honour, the Prosecution upholds the arguments proposed in the indictment, the defendant has confessed to all the charges, and there is no doubt about his guilt in the light of his own statements and those of the injured parties. I do not wish to prolong the case, I am filing for acknowledgement that the defendant is guilty, that by means of deceit he repeatedly led other individuals to submit to various sexual acts, which covers all the characteristics of the crime described in Article 197 Paragraph 2 of the Penal Code, and I am filing for the court to impose a punishment of six months’ imprisonment which, I stress, is the bottom limit of the punishment stipulated by the legislator.’
Szacki sat down. It was an open-and-shut case, and he just wanted it to be over. He had deliberately demanded the lowest possible sentence and had no wish to discuss it. In his thoughts he was endlessly composing a plan for his interrogation of Budnik, juggling with topics and questions, changing their order and trying to envisage scenarios for the conversation, to be ready for all the variants. He already knew Budnik was lying about the final evening he had spent with his wife. But then everyone tells lies – it doesn’t automatically make them into murderers. Perhaps he had a lover, maybe they’d had an argument, maybe they’d had a quiet few days, or maybe he’d been drinking with his mates. Back a bit – he should cross out the lover, because if Sobieraj and Wilczur were telling the truth, he was the most infatuated husband on earth. Back again – he couldn’t cross anything out, in case it was a small-town, thick-as-thieves conspiracy, God knows who, why and for what reason he was being told anything. Wilczur did not inspire trust, and Sobieraj was a friend of the family.
‘Mr Prosecutor,’ the judge’s strident voice shook him out of his lethargy, and he realised he had only heard every third word of the defence counsel’s speech.
He stood up.
‘Yes, Your Honour?’
‘Could you take a stance on the position of the defence?’
Bloody hell, he hadn’t the slightest idea what the position of the defence was. In Warsaw, apart from exceptional circumstances, the judge never asked for an opinion, he just got bored listening to both sides, withdrew, passed sentence, all done, next please.
In Sandomierz the judge was merciful.
‘To change the classification of the crime to Article 217, Paragraph one?’
The content of the regulation flashed before Szacki’s eyes. He looked at the defence counsel as if he were a madman.
‘I take the position that this has to be a joke. The counsel for the defence should familiarise himself with the basic interpretations and jurisdiction. Article 217 concerns assault and battery, and is properly only applied to minor fights or when one politician slaps another one on the face. Of course I understand the defence’s intentions, assault and battery is a privately prosecuted indictment, subject to a punishment of one year at most. There is no comparison with sexual abuse, for which the penalty is from six to eight months. But that is what your client has done, Sir.’
The defence counsel stood up. He gave the judge an inquiring look, and she nodded.
‘I would also like to remind the court that as a result of mediation almost all the injured parties have forgiven my client, which should result in a remission of the sentence.’
Szacki did not wait for permission.
‘Once again I say: please read the Code, Sir,’ he growled. ‘Firstly, “almost” makes a big difference, and secondly, remission as a result of mediation only applies to crimes subject to up to three years’ imprisonment. The most you can petition for is extraordinary commutation of the sentence, which in any case is ridiculously low, considering your client’s exploits.’
The lawyer smiled and spread his hands in a gesture of surprise. Too many films, too little professional reading, Szacki thought to himself.
‘But has anyone been harmed? Did anyone suffer any unpleasantness? Human affairs, involving adults...’
A red curtain fell before Szacki’s eyes. He silently counted to three to calm himself down. He took a deep breath, stood up straight and looked at the judge. She nodded, her curiosity aroused.
‘Counsel for the defence, the prosecution is amazed both at your ignorance of the law and of civilised behaviour. I would remind you that for many months the defendant Huby went about houses in Sandomierz county kitted out with a white gown and a medical bag, passing himself off as a doctor. That in itself is a felony. He passed himself off as a specialist in, I quote: “palpation mammography” and suggested prophylactic examination, with the aim of causing the women to bare their chests and give him access to their charms. Which comes under the definition of rape. And I would also like to remind you that he assured most of his “patients” that their bosoms were in good health, which might not have been true and could have led them to abandon their plans for prophylactic tests, and thus to serious health problems. In any case, that is the main reason why one of the injured parties refused to agree to mediation.’
‘But in two of the ladies he felt a lump and prompted them to get treatment, which as a consequence saved their lives,’ retorted the defence counsel emphatically.
‘Then let those ladies fund a reward for him and send parcels.’ ...
He could see that the judge was having to stop herself from snorting with laughter.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones