Zygmunt Miłoszewski
  • GW Foksal / W.A.B.
    Warszawa, 2014
    380 pp
    ISBN: 978-83-280-0935-6

Many readers have been waiting impatiently for Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s new crime novel in the series featuring Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. And probably just as many were alarmed, not by the novel itself of course, but by the author’s announcement that Rage would be the last in the trilogy, and that he has no plans to write any more books starring the misanthropic lawman.
Like any good crime novel, this one starts with a real shocker. On the second page the reader discovers that Szacki, who is so fond of casting himself as the lone sheriff, the great upholder of the law, is busy strangling someone to death. After this bombshell the action definitely slows down, but that certainly doesn’t mean it runs aground on the shallows of boredom.
Following all his professional and personal misadventures, in search of peace and a change of pace, Szacki has ended up at the prosecutor’s office in the provincial city of Olsztyn. In late November 2013 the weather is foul, there’s not much happening locally, and Szacki seems to be getting ever more weary and irritable. All the more since he has his teenage daughter on his hands, with whom he’s not getting on well. As part of his professional duties he has to “deal with a German”, in other words carry out the necessary legal tasks involved in the discovery of an old skeleton in a wartime shelter, found during construction work. The matter gets complicated when the skeleton turns out to be the remains of someone who died only a few days earlier. What’s more, the victim was murdered with exceptional cruelty. It’s hard for Szacki to establish who committed the murder, and what on earth the motive could have been. The investigation is completely stalled, and on top of that, Szacki gets himself into serious trouble. When a woman comes to tell him that she is afraid of her own husband, he fails to respond to her cry for help; soon after, she is almost beaten to death by the husband. More and more of the cases with which Szacki is directly or indirectly connected revolve around the issue of domestic violence, and the action definitely speeds up when the prosecutor’s daughter is threatened by great danger.
Domestic abuse is now an almost classic topic for Scandinavian crime fiction, which has presented it in all sorts of ways. In Polish crime fiction, however, it features relatively rarely, so it’s a good thing Miłoszewski – now Poland’s best known and most acclaimed crime writer – has taken on this topic. The case (or rather cases) which Szacki has to solve in Rage do much to expose the helplessness of the legal system in dealing with crimes that are committed behind the closed doors of private homes, and most of whose victims are women and children. It also shows up the reluctance of the public services to deal with cases where it is often difficult to find hard proof, and where it is just one person’s word against another’s. It is significant that the issue of domestic abuse is shown mainly from the viewpoint of Szacki, who at first behaves like a “rigid misogynist from a past era”, who doesn’t stop himself from making some extremely sexist remarks. As the action develops, Szacki gradually realises the severity of the issue and starts to wonder what makes outwardly ordinary men from so-called normal families, where few would notice any kind of social problem, to end up tormenting their closest relatives, bullying them physically and mentally. Can there really be an individual “violence gene” inside each one? Interpreted this way, Rage is a very bitter book, in which Miłoszewski spares nobody. Everyone – whether policeman, prosecutor, neighbour, or family member – who turns a blind eye to violence, or fails to react to the faintest signs of abuse, is guilty.
The novel also includes some interesting local colour – in Polish fiction, Miłoszewski is becoming quite a specialist at portraying the Polish provinces. In A Grain of Truth he depicted Sandomierz, and in Rage he describes Olsztyn. In the background to the crime plot he presents the complex history of Olsztyn and the surrounding region, which continues to affect the unhappy present-day condition of a city that has been pushed into a minor role, a poor, provincial town with a bad climate, chaotically developed, parts of it plain ugly. And yet, from behind the scathing comments about Olsztyn, a sort of fascination for the place shines through.
Towards the end of the novel, the action goes into overdrive. Miłoszewski treats the reader to multiple twists, the pursued and the pursuer change places, and it’s hard to tell who is actually setting the traps for whom. The final scene of the novel may cause the reader some confusion, and might make him or her feel manipulated by the author. But that is not a reproach at all – in his previous books Miłoszewski has already shown that he is extremely good at playing on the readers’ emotions. Now he is merely confirming it. Literary tricks of this kind only come off for real virtuosos of crime fiction, and Miłoszewski is certainly one of them.

In his afterword he writes: “The adventures of Prosecutor Teodor Szacki have come to an end”. And yet I suspect – or at least this is how I interpret the ending of the novel, which of course I’m not going to betray – rumours of Prosecutor Szacki’s imminent (fictional) death are greatly exaggerated, and there is sure to be a fourth episode of his adventures soon. If it does happen, I for one will be immensely pleased.

Robert Ostaszewski