Friday, August 28, 2009

Review of Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski, translated by Danusia Stok, Maclehose Press (2008, in Polish 2006)

1933 and the Nazis have recently taken power and are in the process of infiltrating and re-organising the institutions of the Weimer Republic. In Breslau, Criminal Counsellor, Eberhard Mock, Deputy Head of the Criminal Department of Police Praesidium, is not only trying to maintain his authority and power base, but make sure that when the political axe falls on his boss he's promoted into his position. Mock is entirely capable of achieving such an end because he’s an arch-player of the political game, happy to double deal, blackmail and coerce. When 17 year old Marietta von der Malten, the daughter of a Baron, is found murdered in a railway carriage, along with her governess and a railway worker, Mock takes charge. The three victims have been killed by scorpion stings, the daughter’s stomach also slashed open, and strange writing is scrawled on the wall. Mock is well aware of the stakes and sets to work to find the killer knowing that the Gestapo also has an interest in the case. Through some string pulling by Mock’s boss, a young policemen from Berlin, Herbert Anwaldt, is foisted upon him. Mock and Anwaldt form a close 'father-son' partnership during the course of the sweltering summer as they are drawn into a dark world of torture, false confessions, school girl prostitution, and secret sects, as they seek to uncover a dark secret that has serious consequences for both of their futures.

This book should have been right up my street – strong characters, historical pre-World War II setting, interesting plot – but it just never clicked for me. I did enjoy it, but I felt I should have loved it. Somehow it fell a little flat. I’ve been trying to work out why. I think part of the problem is that every character in the book is highly flawed and criminally inclined. All the female characters are prostitutes or madams, all the male characters are police or Gestapo or aristocracy, all highly corrupt. There were no ‘good guys’ only those that weren’t Nazis. I read somewhere that Death in Breslau was Chanderesque. I’ll go along with the idea that Krajewski’s writing is noir, but its doesn’t have the first person narrative of Chandler, nor his craft at creating a way of seeing the world – Chandler always had very rich descriptions of place that didn’t just put you in the landscape but made sure you were seeing it through his lenses (see this post for more on this). And Eberhard Mock is not an anti-hero in the Philip Marlowe mould, he has institutional power and he uses it, even torturing and disposing of people to get the information he needs. I’m starting to think that the book had no heros or anti-heros, just villains. As a reader I was left with little vested interest in any character. As the plot unfolded it became a little fantastic, with the connections to The Crusades and some of the coincidences stretching the story to almost breaking point. Given all that was happening during this period there was really no need for this kind of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' kind of angle.

I wasn’t quite sure where Breslau was, so once I’d finished the book I decided to google it. It’s the German name for Wroclaw in what is now Lower Silesia is South West Poland. Prior to the First World War Breslau was in Prussia and was the sixth largest city in the German Empire. By 1932, just prior to the novel’s setting, the Nazis gained their third highest vote in Breslau, making it one of their strongholds, and from 1933 onwards they started to persecute their political enemies, constructing a series of concentration camps in the region. The novel gave me the impression that Breslau was a small, provincial town. Clearly the book didn’t manage to get this broader contextual history across and the pictures I found show a very ornate medieval city, which never formed in my mind’s eye for some reason.

Death in Breslau passed a few hours, but something just didn’t click for me in the way that I hoped it would. That said, I’d be prepared to give the other books a second chance. Thanks to Uriah at Crime Scraps for the recommendation. Other reviews can be found at:

Eurocrime 1

Eurocrime 2
Reviewing the Evidence
You've Got to Read This!


Maxine Clarke said...

It is always hard, I find, to review a book that you haven't loved or hated and make the review interesting. You've succeeded admirably here. Great review, very absorbing. I specially liked your Breslau research at the end.

I'm torn about this book. Your review makes me disinclined to read it, but on the other hand Norman's (Crime Scraps and Euro Crime) pieces have made me very keen to! I've got a publisher copy of this so it is sitting waiting - for me to make the time and priority, as I waver along in my usual indecisive manner.

Uriah Robinson said...

Sorry this one did not click I did think it was up your street, but perhaps you are too kind and nice to accept such a flawed protagonist as Mock.

I must admit I enjoyed the sequel End of The World in Breslau much more than Death in Breslau.

You can read my review of this at:

There are also links in this to my interview with the author.
End of the World is a much easier read although I agree Mock is a really horrible character:

I think there were very few totally innocent people during this period in Germany, the really innocent were murdered.
Marek made a comment that the once German city of Breslau had an assimilated Jewish and small Polish minority, but post WWII Wroclau has a virtually homogeneous Polish population. The result of both the Nazi persecutions and the advance of the Red Army.