Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Minotaur's Head, by Marek Krawjewski

MacLehose Press, 2012
originally published as Glowa minotaura, 2009
translated by Danusia Stok
289 pp

This is book the fourth book in the Eberhard Mock series to be translated to English, but hopefully more will follow soon. This is one of those series of novels that a reader must truly experience for him/herself -- it's a combination of historical and noir fiction with the added elements of  raw carnality and decadence lying under the "civilized" European veneer.  In short, it's just my kind of read. The other novels so far translated are always "something something ...Breslau"; this one has no mention of Breslau in the title because the bulk action has moved from there to Lwów, Poland, now Lviv in the Ukraine. This is one of the most sordid crimes so far in this series, and the true villain one of the ultimate worst Krajewski has come up with yet. 

Set between 1937 and 1939, the beginning of this novel circles back on its ending as the police in Lwów  come across the body of a savagely-murdered young boy and decide that the case should be handled by Commissioner Popielski.  But Popielski doesn't want to take the case; in fact, he adamantly refuses to do so.  When his cousin asks him why, he replies that  "It's to do with the case of the Minotaur." Popielski decides to tell her the entire story; she tells him to start "with that Silesian city and thick-set Silesian you call your friend," referring to none other than Abwehr Captain Eberhard Mock, now 54.

The whole ignominious business started with a monstrous crime assigned to Mock --someone has raped, strangled and eaten half the face of a young girl at the Warsaw Court Hotel.  In just a short amount of time, Mock discovers that that the murdered girl was brought to Breslau from Lwów.  After he phones the police there, Popielski reveals to his staff that the crime described by Mock "looks like the case of the Minotaur," a case that has remain unsolved for the last two years, when two girls met the same fate as the young woman in Breslau. The news that the Minotaur is back chills Popielski to the bone; already anxious about his teenaged daughter Rita and the gossip that puts her in seedy, lowlife establishments, hanging out with some "rough company,"  now he knows he'll have to watch her even more carefully -- the Minotaur is drawn exclusively to  virgins.  It also begins an alliance between Mock and Popielski in a case that will bring Popielski to the edge of his very sanity, as  "Like Theseus," he enters the labyrinth.

As with the other three books in this series -- Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau, The Phantoms of Breslau -- the crimes are intriguing but even more so is the atmosphere, best voiced in the thoughts of Popielski's cousin Leokadia:
"She could not believe that aside from the world she knew so well -- bridge on Thursdays, at the home of Assistant Judge Stanczyk and his wife; her reading lessons in the mornings; ancient home routines; Holy Hours sung by Hanna; Juraszki ginger biscuits and Zalewski's cake shop -- there was another world of dark and hidden places full of sadists, lunatics and morally warped madmen given to brutal appetites, monsters who gnawed the cheeks of virgins..."
The contrast between the two worlds is where Krajewski absolutely shines and why these books are so worth reading.  The crimes in this novel are ghoulish and grotesque, but even so, Mock and Popielski seem to find time to satisfy their own lustful appetites along the way; beneath their respectful exteriors, they are much  like many of the seedier characters who populate this novel -- brutal, often boorish and uncouth --  albeit on the right side of the law.

Definitely not for everyone's tastes, The Minotaur's Head  and for that matter the previous three novels in the series will probably appeal to people who are seasoned noir readers -- these books offer noir in its darkest connotation, in spots leaning toward the grotesque and surreal.  People who read historical novels and are interested in this period may also like this one for its rich period detail, as would crime readers who are ready to step out of the norm and try something way above and out of  the ordinary. But do NOT make this your first foray into Krajewski's world -- start with Death in Breslau just to get a feel for Krajewski's writing style, his characters and above all the darkness they inhabit. 

Keep them coming, MacLehose! There are still two of Krajewski's Mock books left untranslated.  And kudos to the cover art genius, whose work sets the tone for what's inside. 

crime fiction from Poland

#3 read, International dagger eligible list


  1. "Raw carnality and decadence" just your kind of read? Really, Nancy.

    I headed for the hills just reading one-half of this summary.

    And I think sex trafficking and a few murders in Southeast Asia is horrific!

    Best of luck on your virtual travels to Poland.

    I liked Portugal's Missing Head, but The Minotaur's Head is way out of my league.

    1. Kathy
      When I open a book and it is immediately steeped in atmosphere, I'm going to read it and chances are I'm going to enjoy it, especially if it's historical. Having read all of the other books in this series I know what to expect from this author -- the bottom line never wavers. They're all dark, they're all raw and they're all extremely well written. They're also filled with terrible crimes (which I mention), disturbing people (which I mention) and I do also say they're not for everyone's taste. It's not like I condone murder or rape or strangulation or eating someone's face off in real life -- it's all part of a novel --fiction-- I happen to be reading. It's not real. It's not who I am on the inside. I just like these books and I don't write about them hoping to sell them.

  2. I know. If it's one thing I've learned from reading mystery readers' blogs, it is that everyone's taste in crime fiction differs.

    There are those who love noir, those who love cozies, those who love talking cats or dogs. I have many mystery reading friends, and I loan books out and have to keep straight who likes what ingredients in their murder mysteries.

    One friend didn't think Hypothermia, which I loved, had enough violence. (He liked The Missing Head, had been to all of the sites in Portugal that were mentioned.) Some women friends don't like violence at all on the pages; some don't mind. One loves forensics (she was an ER nurse for 30 years), and historical mysteries, which some don't like.
    A relative likes some cozies and talking cats. (Although I love cats and dogs, I can't accept pets as crime-solvers.)

    And then there are those who love vampire-stories. I can't figure that out at all. While I liked the vampire craziness in Fred Vargas' latest book, at least the crimes were solved using scientific deduction and logic. Some folks didn't like that book. I liked it. I like Vargas' creativity and quirkiness.

    There is no accounting for personal taste in mysteries, as in music, art, decor, cuisine, travel locations, etc. That's fine with me.

    1. I just don't do crime light if I can help it. If I have a choice, I'm going really dark because for me crime is a way to get inside people's heads. Okay, so they're fictional, but still. I kind of want to know what makes people tick.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it