If you happen to be in Rouen, as soon as you’ve finished checking out the famous cathedral and the Gros Horloge medieval clock building, I suggest you drop all touristy pretense and head towards the huge indie bookstore L’Armitière. Last time I went to Rouen I didn’t even made it to the cathedral, but I didn’t miss the bookshop.
Their selection is impeccable on fiction, children’s lit, but the nicest discoveries I made were in the crime corner. I let myself be tempted by authors I hadn’t heard of because I knew it could be a nice surprise. I bought this Polish crime thriller and I wasn’t disappointed.
This book is the second novel featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but it reads nicely as standalone. Apparently in the first book, Teodor Szacki was working in Warsaw, but in this book he has recently moved to a small town after his divorce. In Warsaw, it seemed a good idea to move to Sandomierz, a picturesque (real) town halfway between Krakow and Lublin close to the Byelorussian border. Prosecutor Szacki is an important figure in this bourgeois town. But as he settles down far from his ex-wife and daughter, he discovers that the grass isn’t greener elsewhere and he’s essentially bored. Big crimes are not a frequent occurrence in a small town, when suddenly the bloodless body of a woman is found on the grounds of the old synagogue (destroyed in WW2). The way she’s been killed evokes the persistent urban legend of Jewish ritual killings (blood libel). This is hot stuff in a city where people still struggle with the Antisemitic past, where Holocaust survivors have been “greeted” with more pogroms at the end of the war, and where prejudices are still running wild in the background.
I liked the setting a lot, and the political and social commentary. I liked them even better than the plot itself, which at some point seemed to lose a bit of steam (but I’m a stickler to boring middles, before the plot starts to gather speed again to tie most knots happily together). Yet, the glimpse we get on the Polish psyche is totally worth the read. Characters are often moping around and complaining, which makes them not particularly likeable, but at least true to life. Catholicism, nationalism, Polish resistance against Nazis and/or against Communism, post-communist restitution and/or reconciliation, all these themes are handled deftly as we get to see what it means practically in people’s lives, generation after generation.
I didn’t pick the first book in the series because the plot seemed to be centered on sexual exploitation and human trafficking (confirming the darker orientation of his writing), but I might try it after all.