Conjuring visions of rain slick leather trench coats, decadent Nazi night clubs and brothels, secret cults, and ancient curses. Marek Krajewski gives us an atmospheric noir novel from a Europe in the grips of fear. Fear of the Gestapo, fear of our neighbors, fear of the occult, and fear of awakening the next day to only find that things can get worse.
Death in Breslau: An Eberhard Mock Investigation is a historic crime novel set in the pre-WWII German city of Breslau (now the Polish city of Wroclaw) and is part of the Breslau quartet which has won rave reviews from readers and critics in Germany, England, and Poland. This is the first English translation and will be welcomed by literary, crime fiction, and historical mystery readers alike.
The book tells the story of the rape and murder of a young noble woman, Marietta von der Malten, and her maid, found slaughtered in a way that suggests a ritual killing. The women are discovered in a luxury train car, their bellies sliced open and scorpions placed inside to leave them to die a horrible death. Police Criminal Counselor Eberhard Mock is interrupted during his weekly visit to a brothel serving “discerning tastes,” where he plays chess with a bevy of prostitutes, to lead the investigation at the behest of the young noblewoman’s father, the Baron von Malten, an influential local noble.
Mock is from Silesia–a state in southwestern Poland that throughout its history has been part of Germany, Poland, Bohemia (Czech Republic), and Prussia–and is the son of a humble shoemaker. He is a student of Classical Studies who attended the University of Breslau but did not graduate. He joined the local police force and quickly rose through the ranks thanks to protection from the local Masonic lodge. He was able to further his career through gathering ‘dirt’ on the most important people in business, politics, and the shady underground of German Breslau. Though not physically threatening–being short and fat–he has a reputation of brutality and having the right people in a “vise”; he knows everyone’s dirty little secrets.
Mock bulldozes his way through the case which leads him to a local Jewish pet shop owner, who may or may not have information of those who deal in exotic pets–scorpions. for instance. But the investigation is soon cut short when Mock’s Nazi underling arrests the Jewish shop keeper and his daughter, and the shop keeper dies while being ‘questioned.’ Mock is bribed into accepting a promotion to go along with this charade as hanging the notorious crime on an epileptic Jew serves the Nazi propaganda machine just fine.
But a few weeks later comes the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political murders. Leading figures of the left-wing Strasserist faction of the Nazi Party, along with anti-Nazis, ‘sexual deviants,’ and leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary brown shirts. Among those to fall were people that had impeded Mock’s investigation.
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The case is reopened in secret and a young and tenacious investigator is brought in from Berlin. Herbert Anwaldt is an orphan and an alcoholic prone to spates of madness and excess but he quickly, under Mock’s tutelage, winds he way through the corrupt passages littered with people in high places, members of secret societies, religious occultism, every conceivable sexual persuasion and finds himself eventually stepping on the Gestapo toes and tortured to the point of insanity to uncover the secret to the murder and a 700 year old quest of vengeance buried in an ancient Muslim sect.
Death in Breslau is a welcome study in the noir genre and set against the background of pre WWII Nazi Germany is filled with an atmosphere of darkness and dread. The reader would be well served to be somewhat familiar with the point in time and place where the story is set. Breslau/Wroclaw is an ancient city founded at the crossroads of the Via Regia and the Amber Road–the first, an important trade route between western Asia, through eastern Europe, and ending up in western Europe–and is as the name suggests, the route followed by the merchants transporting amber, an important raw material. Amber was transported from the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts overland by way of the Vistula and Dnieper rivers to Italy, Greece, the Black Sea, and Egypt, thousands of years ago, and long after. The Oder River dissects Breslau and was one of the important waterways that served this purpose.
The city has always been multi-ethnic,being peopled with Poles, Bohemians, Germans, Prussians, and many other groups. It has also been multi-religious, being one of the most important centers of German Jews, producing artists, musicians, and scholars; it also is home to a strong Catholic influence as well as a Protestant one. In many ways it is a crossroads between west and east, Europe and Asia, and also a place where many ideas meet. It makes for a perfect setting, a microcosm of conflict and harmony–for a novel that is not really a historical detective story but is more a Chandleresque/hardboiled story set against a historical point in time, it does not delve deeply into the history of the city or the area.
The plot of Death in Breslau is mostly linear, with flashbacks and flash-forwards that reveal the motivation and consequences of the characters’ actions. The chapters tend to be short and filled with either psychological suspense or edge-of-the-seat action. The sparse dialog is exactly right and the story is told from a third person perspective as a narrative which serves to paint the times as a corrupt and decadent place where men of ugly means still manage to possess admirable traits. it will be a pleasure to wait for further translations from Krajewski and especially the Breslau Quartet.
Hardcover: 256 pages Publisher: Melville International Crime (September 4, 2012)
Language: English ISBN-10: 1612191649 ISBN-13: 978-1612191645