Polish crime writing is becoming more and more diverse. While it is still true that retro thrillers and contemporary crime stories predominate, other interesting sub-genres are coming out, as well, like archaeological crime writing, where the settings are excavation sites, and where scientists uncovering the traces of the past assume the role of detectives. Marta Guzowska has chosen this variant of the crime mystery in her debut Polyxena’s Victim – the first in a series featuring anthropologist Mario ybl.
The author holds a PhD in Archaeology and for over ten years has been a member of an excavation team among the ruins of ancient Troy. It should come as no surprise, then, that the action is set there. During a scorching summer, an international group of scientists drawn from various areas of specialisation discover an unusual grave containing a woman’s remains on a burial ground near Troy. The scientists suspect they’ve come across an incredible find: the skeleton of the mythological Polyxena. It turns out, however, that the remains are actually quite recent. The experts are not only frustrated, but also terrified: someone has begun to murder the women of Troy, copying the mythological cases.
Guzowska’s book is enchanting for two reasons in particular. Firstly, for its beguiling scenery. Polyxena’s Victim is set in Turkey and is a story about the country today seen through the eyes of a person from Western Europe and written against a background of criminal intrigue. Secondly, the central character and narrator of the story is fascinating. This is the splendid anthropologist ybl. It’s difficult to describe the character succinctly… He is a cross between Adrian Monk, Indiana Jones and Philip Marlowe. A drinker, a buffoon and a cynic, as he describes himself. A man with biting wit and an incredible gift for upsetting people. A conceited type, who always does what wants and doesn’t give a damn about the rules. A nyctophobe who overcomes his fear of the dark in the simplest way possible: by drinking himself senseless every night. And finally, a maverick who solves the puzzle of the women’s murders on his own initiative, as usual.
Marta Guzowska is an archaeologist. she has worked as a member of an excavation team in troy for twelve years. Polyxena is the first part of an archaeological detective series whose central character is mario ybl; the author is working on the next volume.
If someone tells you archaeology is fascinating, laugh in his face. Interesting is a movie with Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Lara Croft ones even more so, given the aesthetic value of Angelina Jolie in shorts. Archaeology is dull – so dull it would turn your stomach.
You must be thinking how romantic it must be: an archaeologist stands over an excavation site in his cool duds and watches as each strike of the pickaxe reveals the ruins of a lost civilisation. I’m sorry if this comes as a disappointment to you, but that’s pure crap. First of all: you can forget the pickaxe immediately. Most work is done with a small trowel and brush. Do you know how long it takes, in those conditions, to unearth not a whole civilisation but just a stupid broken pot? No? Well, think about it.
Secondly, ladies and gentlemen, lost civilisations don’t exist. All of them were discovered, catalogued and labelled long ago. Archaeology is about as romantic as accounting. And the work is similar: it’s mainly about writing down hundreds – if not thousands – of numbers. Numbers of layers, numbers of items, numbers of bits of pottery, numbers of who-the-fuck-knows-whatall-else. After that you feed the numbers into databases, you group and analyse them and write a report which has as much romantic in it as the quarterly financial statement you get at your local newsstand.
Besides which it’s difficult for a normal person to endure a working day that starts with an alarm at five a.m., i.e. before sunup, and that finishes after midnight with a piss-up, being is filled, furthermore, with endless hours in such searing heat that it ought to be prohibited by the Geneva Convention. I’ll just say this much: if any prisoner – whether a political prisoner or just a common criminal – was forced to work in conditions like that, Amnesty International would have stepped in long ago.
Today was just like yesterday, the day before yesterday and each one of the last bloody fourteen days. The sun beat down like an atomic pyre, and the sky – with the colour and weight of liquid lead – hung about two centimetres above my poor old skull. The earth burned my feet through my thick soles. Even the wind didn’t bring any relief, just stung my skin and covered my throat in dust.
The trees had turned into rustling skeletons long ago, the river into a muddy channel, and the sea into sludge reeking of seaweed. White ships slid past like wraiths beyond a shimmering curtain of air through the narrows of the Straits of Dardanelles. It wasn’t that easy to see from where I’d stopped to get my breath back if they were sailing or marching across the burning fields. A damp haze obscured Bozcaada and the Rabbit Islands. Only in the evening did the setting sun bare its crimson-dripping fangs and the islands’ outlines come alive, like camel-hide cut outs on the silk screen of a Turkish shadow play.
When Pola called me in the wee hours of the morning some six months ago, I was, of course, asleep.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said, “what time is it anyway?”
I tried looking at the alarm clock. I raised an eyelid, and the light from my bedside lamp blinded me.
“Never mind; just listen. There’s a burial ground. The bulldozers started digging the foundations for some summer houses and got straight into a grave. Not in Troy proper – ten kilometres away, by the sea. Do you know what that means?”
She paused encouragingly.
I gave up the next attempt at opening my eyes and groped around the bedside table for a glass of water.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know! It means it might be the Achaeans’ burial ground!
“Aha.” I muttered.
“The first grave the bulldozer destroyed had an urn in it. A cremation burial. The photographs are a little unclear, but everything suggests it...”
She broke off.
“You do know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
“You’re such an ignorant.”
“Pola,” I croaked, “you call me in the middle of the night to insult me? Can’t you wait until nine?”
“I could. The Achaeans came to Troy to rescue the beautiful Helen. The Trojan War, does that ring a bell?”
“For Christ’s sake!”
The glass of water did what all glasses do when you grope around for them: it fell to the floor and shattered into a million pieces.
“Exactly!” the satisfaction was audible in Pola’s voice. “Frank’s got the permit, and he promised I could head up the entire burial ground section of it. The entire section.”
“Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“And you know which Frank, right?”
There was a moment’s silence on the line.
“You haven’t got a clue, have you? And you’re not all that thrilled by any of it. Correct?”
Another moment’s silence.
“I’ll be needing an anthropologist.”
I sat up with my eyes still tightly closed and swung my feet down onto the cold floor. The windows were terribly draughty, and I had never been able to get it together to mend them. I rubbed the stubble on my face and cleared my throat a few times.
“What does this have to do with me?”
“July. Or the beginning of August. And I want you to bring at least two students.”
“And honestly, I’d prefer advanced students, or doctoral students, so that you won’t have to stand over them the entire time...”
I managed to open one eye and glance at the alarm clock. The two red dots between the two and the thirty pulsed in a soporific, hypnotic rhythm.
“Pola. It’s half past two. In the morning. January seventh.”
She was silent for a moment, and then she said quietly, “I thought you’d be pleased.”
Fine, then, I was pleased. Did I have a choice?
Translated by David French