A weird murder with ritual overtones, the stifling confines of small-town society and a charismatic detective: this would be an enthralling investigation if that’s all it offered. But A Grain Of Truth also gets to grip with one of the toughest issues of our times: anti-Semitism and its complex implications.
Few nations were as affected by the brutal impact of fascism as Poland was during WW2, and the consequences of religious cleansing ring loud and clear in 21st century society – at least, as it’s depicted in this engrossing mystery. Author Zygmunt Miloszewski skilfully weaves centuries of uneasy co-existence and outright conflict into the backdrop of his thoroughly modern procedural. Our protagonist is prosecutor Teodor Szacki, a sophisticate from the big city who’s being suffocated by the trivial tedium of low-level crime and the realities of rural life. Teodor can’t quite believe that ‘the Jewish question’ is central to solving an horrific killing – and through his eyes we learn all about the atrocities of the 20th century and their continued implications for modern Polish society.
The intellectual, egocentric prosecutor is every bit as interesting as Wallander or Montalbano. His flaws make him fascinating but cleverly sidestep the most misused crime-series clichés. He’s not an alcoholic nor a misanthrope, he doesn’t pick fights with his superiors, neglect his personal hygiene, cultivate peculiar plants or eat ham sandwiches while listening to opera.
Instead, imagine a younger version of Monsieur le Juge (Roban from Engrenages), immaculately dressed in city style. Teodor is an urbanite, suffocating in a small town. He’s as fastidious and finickity about his personal appearance as he is committed to the legal process. Emotionally isolated and intensely lonely, so prone to a series of ill-advised sexual adventures. He can be supercilious, condescending and somewhat self-important but he knows the legal code backwards and has a redeeming commitment to the concept of justice at his core. In short, he’s an interesting character to spend time with.
This is a dense and complex book, not one to be read in short snatches. It takes a while to get into the author’s style and to appreciate his biting one-liners as Teodor mercilessly skewers the petite bourgeoisie affectations and outright bigotry of his witnesses, suspects and colleagues. As the killings continue so Teodor becomes more mystified… but when he eventually understands more of the situation so his attitudes begin to shift. His character arc is as interesting as the investigation, and it makes this trilogy a rewarding series to relish. There’s also considerably more humour – much of it delivered with delicate affection – that you might expect in a novel with such a sombre subject matter.
This is the middle book of three, but I’ve read them completely out of order so it doesn’t really matter if you’ve not read the first one. If you enjoy multi-layered Eurocrime with a strong sense of place and personality, this is as good a place as any to start reading Miloszewski’s work.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
A Grain Of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski is available at Amazon
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