Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski

Bitter Lemon Press, 2012
(UK edition)
380 pp
  originally published as Ziarno prawdy, 2011

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

(Now also available in the US)

Continuing with the excellent writing, plotting and above all the characters he established in Entanglement , Zygmunt Miłoszewski has returned with the second novel in his series featuring state prosecutor Teodor Szacki.  Once again Bitter Lemon Press has delivered -- A Grain of Truth is yet another fine offering from this publisher specializing in the crème de la crème of translated crime fiction.   While sometimes the novel gets a little windy ("i" as in "eye") and frustratingly wordy sometimes, the devilish murder plot, the characters and Miłoszewski's infusion of  humor all make for an impressive read.  There is also a darker side to this novel as the author explores the historical interactions of Catholics and Jews in Poland, moving the subject matter into the Communist era and on into modern times where,  according to the author, the old legends, fears, guilt, and prejudices can still resonate.

 When the body, throat slashed and drained of blood, of a beloved member of the Sandomierz community is found in a ravine at the medieval walls of the town, in the middle of what used to be a Jewish cemetery,   Szacki is called in on the case.  He's no longer in Warsaw, having relocated to Sandomierz after an affair caused the breakup of his marriage; up to now he's found provincial life rather boring living in a city "which was in fact dead after six p.m" and wonders why he threw a carefully-built career in Warsaw away for a few dull cases.  But the murder investigation sets all of that aside for the moment.    Although he's still a relative newbie, it is Szacki who gets the case precisely because he will come into it with no preconceived notions -- the dead woman was a friend of his colleague, and according to anyone in the town, as near to sainthood as any mortal could possibly be.  What Szacki terms a "razor-machete" is found nearby, and it  turns out to be a knife used in the Jewish ritual slaughter of cattle.  This is problematic -- as fellow prosecutor Barbara Sobieraj notes,"Sandomierz is at the centre of the so-called legends of blood," ... "the capital of the universe for the idea of ritual murder." After two more vile murders are discovered, each with its own link to "ritual murder," the press has a field day, planting the idea of the old legends concerning Jews and the murders of Christian children into the minds of the public.  As Szacki notes, "They say that in every legend there's a grain of truth," but is that really the case here? 

While A Grain of Truth is an entertaining mystery that will keep you turning pages, the author also explores the ins and outs of the Polish legal system, and different aspects of Poland's history:  Catholicism, anti-Semitism, Polish resistance both to the Nazis and the Communists, the return of the Jews after the camps, and the effects of Poland's often-troubled past on its present.  Even if you're not a history-oriented person, here it makes for incredibly interesting reading and, in my case, spurred me to want to know more.  But the true star of this show is Szacki -- much more fully fleshed out here than in Entanglement, a man of wit and wisdom who
"didn't claim to be an amazing tough guy, but ... liked to think of himself as a sheriff, who instead of a conscience has the Penal Code, and acts as its embodiment, guardian and executor. He believed in it, and on this belief he had built his entire public persona, which over the years had become his uniform, his official costume. It had taken over the way he dressed, his facial expressions, his way of thinking, talking and communicating with people."
Szacki's opinions on topics that range from religion to the media reflect Miłoszewski's honed skills as an observer of reality, as do the author's chapter beginnings which look at individual days in 2009 (the year in which the novel is set), setting forth little tidbits of info that happened on that particular day from different parts of the world. These little blurbs range from the funny to the serious, are related in a kind of sardonic wit and generally have some sort of sideways bearing on the action occuring in the chapter.  For the most part, although not always in some cases, the dialogue he creates among his characters falls out naturally so that he sets a realistic tone,  and his sense of humor sometimes produces laughter that escapes from the brain to become an audible chuckle; all of these points also point to how great a job the translator has done here!  Once in a while, though, the author does trend toward the wordy, but this is such a minor niggle about a novel that is so well written that it's easy to set aside, one I heartily recommend.  Do NOT start this series here, though; you will get more out of  Szacki's character and out of Miłoszewski's writing by beginning with Entanglement.   Readers of cozy-type mysteries probably will want to pass; on the flip side, while it deals with dark subject matter, it's not as edgy as  noir, either.  If you're a fan of intelligently-written translated crime fiction, though, this one will definitely appeal to you.  The novel also proves that Scandinavian crime, which has been really hot for a long time, isn't the only game on the block and that perhaps it's time to expand crime fiction horizons in other directions. Thanks to Bitter Lemon Press, that's becoming easier -- keep up the great work finding these novels and bringing them to us.

crime fiction from Poland


  1. Nancy - I'm so glad that you enjoyed this one. I have to admit I don't know enough about Polish crime fiction and I really ought to. But I 100% and completely agree with you about the generally excellent quality of Bitter Lemon's offerings. I'm happy to hear this one lived up to their reputation.

    1. I did enjoy it, immensely. I've been really getting tired of the same old same old and am looking for something new and fresh in my crime. This author is, in a word, amazing.

    2. Sounds like a fascinating book. However, I try to avoid reading about the horrors of WWII, including in Poland, homeland of my relatives, but, luckily, they left before it.

      A relative's Jewish family, however, was killed in a Polish town by other Poles, Catholics, in a country known for its anti-Semitism.

      I have to remember that so many heroic non-Jewish Polish people helped to hide Jewish children, and even adults, and did many heroic deeds, while inside the Polish Resistance and outside it.

      But I will probably pass on this book, although it sounds quite good.

    3. Re your point on the Polish people who hid Jewish children: the author makes it perfectly clear that many non-Jewish people came forward to help, often to their detriment. The series is excellent -- I hope you might wish to change your mind someday.


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