A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski is the second in the procedural series featuring Teodor Szacki, a State Prosecutor in Poland (available January 8, 2013).
A victim is found brutally murdered, her body drained of blood. The killing resembles a Jewish ritual slaughter, prompting a wave of anti-Semitic paranoia in the closely knit community of Sandomierz, Poland. State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki has recently relocated from Warsaw to Sandomierz to start a new life. Instead, he finds himself investigating a strange murder case in unfamiliar and unfriendly surroundings.
Every legend contains a grain of truth. Or so people wish to believe. Even a legend as fantastic as the Loch Ness Monster originated in some sort of fact and not merely in what a lonely Highlander swears he saw once upon a foggy twilight. Right?
So if the good people of Sandomierz, Poland, have heard legends of evil deeds perpetrated by its Jewish community—no matter how horrifying, no matter how inhuman—they choose to believe, because there must be a grain of truth hidden somewhere within. Right?
No, it’s not right!
This sort of group-think psychology is the basis of the second Prosecutor Teodor Szacki mystery by Polish author Zygmunt Mi?oszewski, a former journalist whose mystery novels have become best sellers in Poland. (His first Szacki novel, Entanglement, was adapted for a feature film in 2011.)
Psychology fascinates Mi?oszewski, and he excels at dissecting the human mind’s workings. Even the most sensible people do nonsensical things: logical people behave illogically, sympathetic people treat others cruelly, successful people are compelled to sabotage their own success. No one is a better example of the last than Szacki himself. He’s a protagonist with troubles, most of which are down to his own foibles and indiscretions. He’s a philanderer, although even he couldn’t tell you why. And though he finds women irresistible, he tires of them quickly and doesn’t understand them at all.
If you’ve read Entanglement—and I highly recommend that you do because it’s very good and because it puts A Grain of Truth in context—you know that Szacki was a rising star in Warsaw, with a beautiful wife and a young daughter. And now:
To put it unsubtly, he had thrown the life he had spent years building down the toilet in exchange for a sodding pipe dream, and now he was left with nothing, which felt so terrible that it even gave him a sense of exoneration for his own bad behavior. Absolutely and exactly nothing.
Instead of being the star of the capital city’s prosecution service, he was an outsider who prompted mistrust in a provincial city, which was in fact dead after six p.m.—but unfortunately not because the citizens had been murdering each other.
In real life, Sandomierz is a beautiful, historic city, where folks from big-city Warsaw go for long weekends to bask in its relaxed charm and admire its preserved Old Town. It’s also a favorite destination for school trips because of the network of underground tunnels dating back to the 13th century that spreads out beneath the city. And people throughout Poland recognize it as the setting for Father Mateusz (Ojciec Mateusz), a heartwarming hit TV series about a crime-solving priest. (All of these things come up in this book.)
To Szacki, however, Sandomierz is a tiresome small town. His new colleague, Barbara “Basia” Sobieraj, could be the liaison he needs to make inroads if he had any interest in connecting with the community. He doesn’t. Then the murders start—terrible, premeditated, choreographed murders that demand his attention and foil his instincts—and he must learn to navigate the interconnected paths of local society and local history, particularly the bizarre and troubling local “wisdom” that has fueled anti-Semitic sentiments for centuries.
[Basia Sobieraj] said, “Sandomierz is at the centre of the so-called legend of blood, and the history of Polish-Jewish relations alternates between either nice, friendly cohabitation or recriminations and bloody pogroms—the last anti-Semitic killings happened here just after the war. If someone, God forbid, uses the term ‘ritual murder,’ it’ll be the end.”
“Ritual murder is a fairy tale,” replied Szacki calmly… “Let’s not get hysterical.”
But people do get hysterical, and it’s up to Teodor Szacki, the hotshot prosecutor from Warsaw, to sort it all out in this beautiful city with a less-than-beautiful past. There’s a lot here that you’ll find unfamiliar, but the psychology and complexity of human behavior is universal, and Mi?oszewski uses it to advantage in this intriguing and original story.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.