Marcin Wroński’s series of novels about Commissioner Zygmunt “Zyga” Maciejewski, is slowly making its way to the top of the Polish crime list and winning the approval not only of literary critics but above all of readers.
This is, on the one hand, because the Lublin writer is evolving from book to book, writing ever better prose, and on the other, because each of the novels is different. The action of The Winged Coffin, the fourth of the Maciejewski series, runs along two storylines. It is January, 1945, and Maciejewski is rotting in a secret police jail where a demonic major – nomen omen – called Gravedigger is trying to break him. One of Zyga’s fellow inmates is a man he met during an investigation in 1936. This is the second storyline. A guard hangs himself in the Lublin Airplane Manufacturing Company. The case is apparently simple and clear but Maciejewski is puzzled by the fact that everyone wants the case swiftly closed and, on top of that, military counter-espionage are interested in it. He takes the case into his own hands and, incurring the anger of his superiors, keeps the investigation open. In the end, he stumbles onto the trail of a gang of ingenious drug traffickers.
The history depicted in the novel’s narrative is, for Wroński, just as important – if not more so – as the criminal plot. And he does not restrict himself simply to painting a picture of pre-war Lublin, which is admittedly a provincial town, though it is colourful in its multi-cultural nature. Wroński – like other writers of retro crime such as Marek Krajewski and Paweł Jaszczuk – fills in the blank spaces of our history with plenty of detail. And the fact that he applies, in the process, the conventions of the crime novel adds even more flavour to stories about worlds wiped off the surface of the earth by “history set free of its chains.”
Wroński has yet another ace in his sleeve: Commissioner Maciejewski is the most clear-cut and intriguing protagonist in Polish crime fiction since Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock.
Miss Anna Szpetówna had worked in the municipal library for less than a year but flattered herself that she merely had to glance at whoever entered to know what newspaper they would pick up or which book they would order from the collection. She owed this to her preference for psychological novels (which she willingly spoke
about and about which she had even once written a letter to Literary News) and detective stories (which she did not talk to anybody about because they were, after all, shameful, even though many of her friends read The Secret Detective). She also owed it to her father, a lawyer through whose office many a swindler had passed.
Nevertheless, when that day, just as the library opened in the morning, a scruffy, well-built and no doubt once quite handsome man in a dirty jacket approached her, Miss Anna was presented with a difficult enigma.
“Winged Poland, the last two annuals, for a start, and the volume In Honour of Fallen Pilots,” he said, to her surprise. He rubbed the stubble on his chin and added “Oh, yes, and Armed Poland from the beginning of the year,” in a tone that was as if he were really saying: “Oh, yeah, lovely, and give me a beer with that, too.” After which he signed the register in an unruly hand: Zygmunt Maciejewski, white-collar worker (indicating strength of will, Szeptówna had read somewhere).
He filled in the order slip for the archival annuals as quickly as if he were a daily visitor to the library. He sat down next to the retired professor Dubiel, who had practically made the reading room his second home because, allegedly, he was writing a biography of Łopaciński, the library’s founder. Miss Anna had not much liked him ever since he had started to explain to her, in a theatrical whisper, that Łopaciński had not fallen from a britzka by accident, but rather that it had been an attempt on his life by Jewish Communist terrorists.
Szeptówna did not have Semitic features; with her dark blonde hair and marvelous, erudite pronunciation, she could easily have passed as a Pole, so the professor probably had not known who he was dealing with. Nonetheless, when the new reader offhandedly pushed aside the professor’s notes – which took up a table and a half – and silenced his protests with the glare of a professional murderer, the excited librarian practically dropped an old volume of The Theatre and Fashionable Life.
In the meantime, Maciejewski flitted through the volume of In Honour of Fallen Pilots at a horrifically American speed. It was as if he were not reading it at all, but instead looking for something between the lines. He seemed mysterious to Miss Szpetówna and all the more interesting. If she could figure him out! . . . Then Maciejewski kept getting bogged down in the articles of Winged Poland, which schoolboys devoured just as she did the Literary News. His mind would wander. Sometimes fifteen minutes would pass, and he would just hold his pen as if it was a cigarette, without even turning the page. Just a moment, had there been a wedding band on his finger? – the librarian tried to remember.
“Good morning, Miss,” a velvet voice tore her from her reverie.
She had not heard the door open! Which is why she now looked, with the foolish expression of a schoolgirl, at the handsome man in an eccentric, colourful tie, hair glistening with brillantine, and a red, runny nose.
“Would you like . . . a newspaper, sir?” she spluttered.
“My dear, I wouldn’t dare say what I would like.” He adjusted his hair with the gesture of a silver screen heartthrob and then sneezed. “In the meantime I just need to have a word with that man.” He pointed to Maciejewski, now immersed in his reading.
Miss Anna should have protested – a reading room was, after all, a reading room – but whether it was the narcotic scent of the after-shave, or the animal magnetism of yet another unexpected guest, she simply sat there, without a word, and watched the dandy go and sit on the edge of a chair next to his scruffy friend. He whispered something and slipped him a folded piece of paper. They were like the leader of a Chicago mob with his right-hand man. “I got a gig for you, Tommy Gun. A hit,” said the suave younger man confidently.
“Okay, Johnny, tomorrow the guy’ll be just another stiff,” said Maciejewski without a moment’s hesitation. But whose name was on the piece of paper? Dubiel’s?! Miss Szpetówna giggled quietly at the thought.
Or he was trafficking women! Here another plot came to the librarian’s mind. The brillantined pimp and his violent, sadistic partner. His nose had been broken by some rivals in a pimp war but he, covered in blood, strangled them all with his bare hands. In that case, however, their chosen victim could only be her, the only woman in the reading room!
Maciejewski reached into his pocket; there was the rustling of a wrapper. And Miss Szpetówna could not help but smile again because the man who had assumed the proportions of a ruthless criminal in her head had just popped a piece of chocolate into his mouth. Like a little boy!
Before a quarter of an hour had passed, the librarian already had an idea for an electrifying erotic thriller. A gang of thugs kidnap a modern girl who works to satisfy her modest needs but is the daughter of a well-known lawyer. Initially, they want to sell their victim to an international gang trafficking young women from Poland to Argentina but the dandy and gang leader comes up with the idea of demanding ransom from her father. Her father, thanks to his wide range of contacts both among the guardians of the law and in the criminal
underworld, sets a police posse and a gang of ruthless criminals after them. “Kill her!” orders the boss when they are trapped, surrounded. “I’d sooner kill you,” spits out Zygmunt Maciejewski disdainfully, and in his eyes burns the fire of crime and desire. A fight breaks out between the former partners; an erstwhile clandestine love between the kidnapper and his victim breaks onto the public stage . Together, they run away to Brazil, where . . .
The door quietly squeaked and Miss Szpetówna was forced to tear her thoughts away from her future, bestseller. In front of her stood a uniformed policeman, the strap of his hat beneath his chin, on duty. He saluted.
“I’ve come to . . .” he cast his eyes around the library. “For that man,” he indicated the reader who had instigated Anna’s racing criminal thoughts.
He’s arresting him! – the librarian could barely conceal her excitement. Unfortunately, the policeman formally saluted the “white-collar worker” and, leaning over, said a few sentences to him. Maciejewski quickly gathered his notes.
“Are you returning them, sir, or shall I put them aside for you?” asked Miss Szpetówna.
“Returning them, thank you.” He looked straight at her and it was only her good upbringing which stopped the lawyer’s daughter from bursting into laughter, for his mouth was smeared with chocolate.
Translated by Danusia Stok