After the publication of 2013's Pogrom Next Tuesday, part five in a series about pre-war police chief Zygmunt "the Jew" Maciejewski, Lublin-based writer Marcin Wroński has become one of Poland's most award-winning authors of detective novels. With the publication of the latest book in the series, titled Haiti (2014), people will be wondering if it is as successful as its predecessor. Has it happened, has Wroński managed to keep things up to standard? Before I respond to this question, I should first describe the criminal intrigue that the author has cooked up this time around.
As in The Winged Coffin (2012), the action of Haiti takes place in two time frames. In 1951, downtrodden by life and the secret police, Maciejewski is keeping watch over a decrepit Lublin racehorse track, and tending to a mare named Haiti. He does everything in his power to keep this beautiful, precious animal from being taken over by the local big-wigs or from being carried off to the slaughterhouse. He had dealt with this horse years before, in 1938, and it had already caused him some trouble. During an important horserace in Lublin, the corpse of a man with a mutilated face was found in Haiti's stall. Had he been kicked when the mare was spooked? At first it appeared to be merely an unfortunate accident, but Maciejewski suspected murder at once. And he was not mistaken, as it swiftly turns out that the man was first suffocated in an unusual way – a medallion from the Napoleonic era was rammed down his throat. Who was murdered, and what was he doing in the stable? No one knows. Where did the medallion come from? Hard to say. The mysteries pile up, and when it comes down to it, Zygmunt does not like mysteries. Thus he does whatever possible to solve this tangled afffair, though he has to simultaneously deal with a break-in to a safe in a local brewery and cope with his private enemies. And he has a special talent for making enemies.
Wroński has splendid control over the rules of the genre, and he manipulates them with finesse. The criminal intrigue in his novels is always honed to the finest detail, it is always fascinating and unexpected. The exceptional value of this prose, however, comes from somewhere else (which some might call peripheral to the detective novel): the winding of historical subplots into the suspense, a fidelity to the depiction of pre-war Lublin, and a sense of distance (visible, above all, on a stylistic level). All these elements can be found in Haiti, though not always to the same standard as they appear in Pogrom Next Tuesday.
Most authors of retro detective novels treat history as no more than an unavoidable backdrop for a crime story, which is the focus of their attention; Wroński, meanwhile, plays with history, or more precisely, with the stereotypical ways in which we see it. A crucial subplot in Haiti is tied to the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920. The author does not shy from controversial subject matter (in Pogrom… he addressed the complex Polish-Jewish relations following World War II), and this latest novel depicts the crimes and wrongdoings of soldiers of the Polish army: the theft of precious items from a manor whose inhabitants were murdered by the Soviets, and the abandonment of wounded soldiers to certain death for despicable reasons. Thus he taints the vision of Polish soldiers as unblemished knights who repelled the Bolshevik avalanche. After all, war being what it is, ordinary criminals fought alongside the heroes.
The Polish retro detective novel has taken on the legacy of the popular and admired prosethat explored small regional territories from the previous decade. It is writers such as Wroński, Marek Krajewski, and Paweł Jaszczuk who recall places that were changed, or to a large extent destroyed, by a "history released from its shackles." The author of Haiti describes pre-war Lublin, as in the novel before, with exceptional solicitude, not to say – piety. He uncovers various curiosities from the time, and meticulously documents every place. At the same time, he has a gift for very visual descriptions of urban spaces, which make a reader's "strolls" through this city quite remarkable. In this case, using two time frames has an added advantage, as it emphasizes the contrast between the modernizing, multicultural, and (its provinciality notwithstanding) colorful Lublin of the 1930s, and the gray, dilapidated Lublin of the post-war years.
Finally, in Haiti, too, Wroński concocts a tale of crime from years far in the past with marked distance, which is a rarity in Poland's retro detective novelists. He draws from the film noir convention, but inserts it in intertextual inverted commas - this is particularly evident in the character of the main protagonist, a tough guy with a broken nose, a drunk and a hot-head, who generally follows his own guidelines in his cases and not the letter of the law. This is why we find so much humor and so many ironic concepts in Wroński's books, as in Haiti, where Maciejewski, who does not like horses, has to, and wants to, look after Haiti.
All told, has Wroński written a novel just as good as the outstanding Pogrom Next Tuesday? I would say that Haiti is a different sort of detective novel, written with decidedly different intentions. It is less "historical" and is nuanced to a lesser degree. The criminal intrigue is lighter, in a sense, less brutal than in Pogrom Next Tuesday. But do detective novel writers really have to endlessly repeat the same patterns in their books, as Krajewski does? Wroński answers in the negative. And for this he ought to be praised.
Translated by Soren Gauger