... dark – and darkly humorous – European crime fiction at its best... (Reader Dad Blog)
Rage is a book by Poland’s number one crime writer, Zygmunt Miłoszewski, which has been released just yesterday in English. It became one of the bestselling books in Polish literary history when it came out last year.
Zygmunt Miłoszewski is the biggest name in Polish crime fiction, his addictive, gritty novels have been compared to the Scandinavian crime masters. The first two novels Prosecutor Szacki series (A Gain of Truth and Entanglement) have been made into films and BBC Radio 4 are currently in the process of dramatizing Grain of Truth for radio. His books have been translated into over 13 different languages.
Here’s a special excerpt for you, readers of FLY HIGH!
For a while Szacki was lost. He remembered Olsztyn’s Warszawska Avenue as a wide road leading out of town past the university, but it turned out to have an uglier sister—a short extension lined with scruffy little tenements right next to the Old Town. He had to turn left by Jan’s Bridge. The hospital was located opposite something that called itself the “regional beer center.”
He showed the guard his ID and found a parking spot between the buildings. This had once been the German garrison hospital, probably of lesser importance, as the buildings of immortal red brick looked much smaller and more modest than the neo-Gothic blocks of the city hospital. Part of it looked neglected, and part had been renovated, with a modern interior that was nicely integrated with the German architecture. The place had the atmosphere of a building site, arising from the fact that Olsztyn’s university medical faculty had only been up and running for a few years. In a short time a squalid military hospital had been transformed into a clinical marvel. Szacki had been to see Żenia’s mother here last year and had realized that on the whole it had quite a human dimension, compared with the various medical monstrosities he had seen in his career. That had been during a hot spring, when the chestnut trees were flowering among the buildings, and the old brick walls exuded a pleasant chill.
A chill was the last thing he needed now. He did up his coat and quickly walked across to the only square building, exceptionally coated in white plaster. It crossed his mind that if the man was called Frankenstein, he was sure to look normal and behave naturally. It would be a nice change after all the crazy pathologists he had met. Besides, he was a university lecturer, and not some weirdo cutting up corpses all day long. He had to be normal—he taught kids, didn’t he?
A vain hope.
Professor Ludwik Frankenstein, D.Sc., was waiting for him at the top of the stairs, by the entrance to the anatomy department. Well, well—he’d done everything he possibly could to make himself look like a mad scientist. He stood straight as a reed, tall and thin, with the long, aristocratic, classically handsome face of the only good German officer in an American war movie. He had a steely gaze, a straight nose, as if drawn with a set square, a short, fair beard trimmed like Lenin’s, round glasses in very thin wire frames, and a bizarre medical gown with a mandarin collar and a row of buttons down each side like an officer’s greatcoat. To complete the image, all he needed was a pipe with a long stem, and some amputated hands protruding from the pockets of his gown.
“Frankenstein,” he said in greeting.
The only thing missing was a clap of thunder.
“Once this was the hospital canteen,” he explained to Szacki, as he led the way through the lab.
“I see,” said Szacki, noticing some small paper plates with the remains of cake and empty champagne bottles lined up against the wall. “So buildings don’t change their habits.”
Soon after, Frankenstein opened a door and they entered the dissection room, without doubt the most modern Szacki had ever seen. There was a chrome-plated table, equipped with all the essential instruments for dissection, as well as video cameras, lamps, and a powerful hoist. He probably couldn’t deal with the smell of the corpse, but perhaps at least he wouldn’t have to toss all his clothes in the washing machine after the autopsy.
There were several rows of high chairs towering around the table—this was not just a dissection room, but also a lecture hall.
“Here,” said Frankenstein in a low voice, “we strip death of its mysteries.”
The professor’s solemn words would have sounded dignified, except that in this temple of death there were more empty champagne bottles standing on the windowsills, balloons were free floating against the ceiling, set in motion by the fan, and colored streamers were hanging from the surgical lights. Szacki passed no comment on this evidence of a party, or on the scientist’s words. He looked at the bones of yesterday’s German laid out on the table. At first glance the skeleton looked complete. Szacki stuck his hands in his coat pockets and tightly crossed his fingers. The scientist had a weird name and looked like a madman, but he might just be a normal guy with an unusual appearance. Down to earth, solid, pleasant.
“This table,” said the professor, stroking the chrome surface, “is to a corpse what a Bugatti Veyron is to a seventy-year-old playboy. It’s hard to imagine a better combination.”
A vain hope.
Szacki uncrossed his fingers, swallowed a comment on whether in that case he should apologize for only providing old bones, and got to the point: “So what’s the issue?”
“You, as a prosecutor, are sure to know the basics of biology, the pseudoscientific version of it that is enough for criminal investigation. How many years does it take for a man to become a skeleton?”
“About ten, depending on the circumstances,” Szacki replied calmly, though he felt rising irritation. “But to be in this state, with no tissue, no cartilage, sinew, or hair takes at least thirty. Even bearing in mind that corpses decompose faster in the open air than in water, and much faster than when buried.”
“Very good. There are various minor factors, but in our climate, left to itself, a corpse needs a minimum of two or three decades to reach this state. That’s what I was thinking as I laid our rascal out. I also thought the skeleton was complete enough for me to use it as a jigsaw puzzle: I toss various pieces into bags, and the students have to put them together against the clock. I was ready to make the missing pieces myself.” He adjusted his glasses and smiled apologetically. “A little creative hobby of mine.”
Szacki realized where this argument was leading.
“But there are no pieces missing.”
“Exactly. That’s what got me thinking—it’s a mystery. This corpse has been lying there for dozens of years, but not a single bone has gone missing. No rat took even one?”
“In an enclosed structure made of reinforced concrete.”
“That occurred to me, but I called some friends who take an interest in the history of Olsztyn . . . Are you from Olsztyn?”
“I thought not. We’ll return to that. So I called my friends, and they told me it was an ordinary air-raid shelter, a cellar. So it wasn’t hermetically sealed, it had washing facilities, plumbing, ventilation. You could say anything about it, but not that it was an enclosed structure. Which means that rats, fighting for food, should have scattered those remains into all four corners. Why didn’t they?”
Szacki just stared.
“The body has its secrets.” Frankenstein lowered his voice, so nobody could have been in any doubt that he was about to betray one of them. “Did you know that we have taste receptors in the lungs, as well as on the tongue?”
“I do now.”
“And they’re for bitter tastes! The alveoli react to bitter flavors. Which means that the ultimate remedy for asthma may not be some miraculously manufactured substance but something basic, as long as it’s bitter. I don’t envy the guy who discovered that. The pharmaceutical companies have probably put a price on his head by now.”
“Professor, please . . .”
“To the point. But one more fact to take home with you: The cervix has taste receptors too. In its turn, it likes a sweet flavor. Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that to give them vitality, the spermatozoa travel along on a base of fructose?”
Szacki decided the best defense against a madman was attack.
“Curious,” Szacki said, imitating Frankenstein’s tone. “Maybe in that case you’d like to go into business producing huge chocolate vibrators? Your knowledge of human anatomy would be indispensable.”
Frankenstein adjusted his glasses.
“I’ll give it some thought. But let’s get back to the bones.” He folded his hands behind his back and strolled around the table. “Here was an enigma, the key to which was this very corpse. So I set about examining it. At first I hadn’t noticed—”
“Is it a man or a woman?”
“A man, of course. I hadn’t noticed, because sometimes even as a result of decomposition, the phalanges in the toes do not separate but remain stuck together by thin joint capsules and degeneration. Have a look.” He picked up a single bone and tossed it in Szacki’s direction.
Szacki caught it without a second thought; he had seen worse corpses than the professor had.
It was two small bones, one about two inches long, the other shorter, joined together by a thin layer of white transparent cartilage.
“Don’t you see anything surprising?”
“The joint hasn’t decomposed.”
“Try moving those bones.”
He tried, and to his amazement, he could bend them. There couldn’t possibly be any working joints in a corpse that had been rotting for decades.
“And now try to separate them.”
A gentle pull was all it took; in one hand he was holding the shorter bone, which ended in a small metal plate with a hole in it, like the washer that goes under a nut. The longer bone still had its cartilage, tipped with a half-inch square bolt.
“What is it?”
“It’s a silicone endoprosthesis for a metatarsophalangeal joint, also known as a floating endoprosthesis, a modern solution in the field of joint prostheses. A surgical way of dealing with a condition known as stiff big toe. Extremely irritating for sportsmen. And for women, because they can’t walk in high heels. Judging by his cranial sutures, this man was about fifty. So neither a woman nor a sportsman. He probably liked to look after himself.”
Szacki’s brain was working at full throttle.
“Does it have a serial number?”
“Normal ones, yes, silicone ones, no. But there’s only one center in Warsaw where they make these things—they specialize in foot surgery. One of my former students is making a fortune there because there are women who are prepared to pay the price of a car for the perfect anatomical products to go with their high-heeled shoes. I called him out of curiosity.”
“So far he has only ever implanted one prosthesis of this kind and size. For a patient from Olsztyn. Who was very much counting on this operation because he loved going for long walks about his beloved Warmia. And how do you find life in Olsztyn?”
“It’s a great place,” muttered Szacki.
He needed names and details.
Frankenstein beamed and straightened up, as if about to get a medal from the Führer.
“I quite agree. Do you know that we have eleven lakes within the city limits? Eleven!”
“Did he say when the operation took place?” asked Szacki, thinking that if the corpse were five or seven years old, the case wouldn’t be very fresh, but would still involve a mystery.
“Two weeks ago. Ten days ago the patient walked out of the clinic and drove home. November fifteenth, to be exact. He was greatly looking forward to his Saturday walk.”
“That’s impossible,” said Szacki, staring at the bones he was holding, from a foot that had apparently been strolling about the Warmian forest just over a week ago. He joined them together and tried bending them again—the artificial joint worked perfectly.
Frankenstein handed him a small sheet of paper.
“The patient’s details.”
Piotr Najman, resident of Stawiguda. Born in 1963, turned fifty a week ago. Or would have.
A skeleton has been discovered in a sealed bunker in the idyllic Polish city of Olsztyn. It’s probably a relic from the German occupation, another reminder of Olsztyn’s tangled historical identity. Famous prosecutor Teodor Szacki is called to the scene and soon discovers the remains are, in fact, quite fresh. The flesh has been chemically removed.
Szacki questions the dead man’s wife. Her answers are unhelpful yet he knows she’s hiding something. Then another victim surfaces—a violent husband, alive but maimed—giving rise to a theory: someone is targeting domestic abusers. Upright and occasionally misogynistic, Szacki is forced to reassess his perceptions of morality and justice.
Fast-paced, addictive and spine-chilling, Rage has been hailed for its sensitive portrayal of domestic abuse by women’s groups in Poland and serves to make the reader question: what kind of rage can drive a man to kill?
About the author: Zygmunt Miłoszewski
Zygmunt Miłoszewski is the one of the world’s best-known contemporary Polish writers, whose work is compared with that of the Scandinavian masters of the crime genre. The translation rights to his books have been sold for publication in thirteen different languages (including the UK). The first two novels in the Prosecutor Szacki series have been made into films. He is the only author to date to have won The High Calibre Award for the Best Polish Crime Novel twice (2007 and 2012). The most prestigious of his many other international awards are the Polityka Passport in the literature category, which he won in 2015 for Rage, and two nominations to the French Prix du Polar Européen (2014 and 2015) for the Best European Crime Novel. Zygmunt is also involved in writing Polish TV drama, The Prosecutor.
The Szacki Trilogy
Rage is the third book in the Szacki trilogy, which was designed as three stand-alone novels, connected only by their protagonist, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. All three examine different Polish cities and three different social issues, important for both Poland and Europe. Entanglement is set in Warsaw and explores the troubled cultural complexities caused by the disappearance of the Iron Curtain. A Grain of Truth dissects anti-Semitism and xenophobia in provincial Sandomierz, a picturesque medieval town.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Translator)
Antonia is a full-time translator of Polish literature, and twice winner of the Found in Translation award. She has translated works by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and authors of reportage. She also translates crime fiction by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, poetry, essays, and books for children. She is a mentor for the BCLT’s Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme, and Co-Chair of the UK Translators Association.