Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski is a superb procedural crime novel of revenge from Poland issued by Bitter Lemon Press, a publishing house specializing in noir crime writing from faraway places. Entanglement is certainly different, set as it is in a world haunted by the specter of a Communist past.
Centered around an apparently ordinary murder case that lands on the desk of Polish State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, Entanglement is set against against the background of recent Polish history, a shadow land of open wounds and bitterness left in the wake of the collapse of the Communist regime: secret police operatives of the Communist era have quietly faded from the scene and attempts to bring them to justice have stalled, creating an unacknowledged atmosphere of bitterness and existential disappointment of justice denied. Yet a full accounting of the past would simply be too costly from both the emotional and political standpoints. Sometimes, it is best to let the past be past, but this becomes yet another moral compromise that Szacki comes up against again and again in the course of the book, making Entanglement a crime novel of some substance. It is also a novel of tension between the past and a future — can a future be built based on an enforced amnesia of the past?
In Entanglement, one father who has lost his young son to secret police torturers takes matters of justice into his own hands. It is up to Szacki to find his path through this convoluted labyrinth as he searches for the killer of a group therapy participant. In doing so, he comes on radar of a secret group of former secret police agents who attempt to sway him in his quest for the truth.
The morning after a group therapy session one of the participants, Henryk Telak, is found dead, struck with a long, sharp object through his eye. In Poland, major crimes are investigated by the prosecutor, who fills the role of a detective, as the function would be understood by an American audience. The prosecutor is assisted in his work by the Police, here embodied in the odd character of Oleg, a man wholly seduced by his own lecherous mind. Once he assembles the facts of the crime, the prosecutor writes a criminal indictment, which he then submits to the court. What is also quite different from the situation of an American detective is that the Polish prosecutor has no partner. Szacki’s quest proceeds slowly at first as he interviews the other members of the therapy group and the therapist. There is little CSI-style flash here. The choice of the prosecutor as protagonist has a lot to do with this I suspect — this is a story of a lone prosecutor whose boss is not friendly and whose colleagues are distant – and the choice creates a situation that results in something closer to a classic mystery where the detective uses his superior powers of reasoning to untangle the puzzle. And the one facing Szacki a mystery that is hard indeed, so much so perhaps that the plot needs a bit of extra help in form of a convenient appearance of a key clue.
The strongest part of the novel comes toward the end as the situation and its historical context come completely into light. Szacki’s contact with the two men working in Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a vast repository of Communist-era files, is particularly tension-inducing and harrowing, evoking the kind of atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia reminiscent of the X-Files: They are watching Szacki, the old comrades, a cabal of powerful former communists against whom there is no recourse, even for the agent of the Polish Republic. Like the FBI agent battling the secret alien cabal in the X-Files, Szacki’s knowledge of the truth is wasted because he is impotent to act on it. His family and his own life are in danger and no one can help him as corruption touches everywhere.
Szacki is initially naive about the past as he pursues his thankless job as prosecutor and investigator of the therapy group murder. In this respect, he stands for the new generation of Poles who were in their late teens when Poland experienced dramatic political changes and for whom the dark past is as much of a shock as it is to a reader who shares his ignorance of recent Polish history in its more paranoid version. And Miloszewski layers on the paranoia with the same kind of suffocating atmospherics of doom closing in on the lone quester for justice as in the best of American noir. The past in Entanglement exerts a shadow over the present and leaves the reader with an unsettling feeling of dread.