Death in Breslau

Death in Breslau is the first of four books in the Inspector Eberhard Mock series written by the Polish novelist Marek Krajewski. Set in the German city of Breslau (present-day Wroclaw, Poland) during the years 1933 and 1934, this intricate thriller is also a meticulous and vivid evocation of a metropolis and a bureaucracy caught in the tightening grip of the ascendant Nazi Party and the Gestapo. “On January 31st [1933], the posts of Minister of Internal Affairs and Chief of the entire Prussian Police were taken by Hermann Göring,” Krajewski dryly reports; “…a new order had come to pass.”

Sardonic, erudite Counsellor Eberhard Mock, Deputy Head of the Criminal Department of the Police Praesidium, must now tolerate in his ranks Max Forstner, a “small, fat, red-haired scoundrel” who is the protégé of the new President of Police, “the fanatical Nazi” Edmund Heines. Mock, however, has learned that “anyone could be destroyed,” and Forstner’s downfall is one of the sweetest in the novel, but it must wait. Mock’s immediate concern is a murder, weird and foul.

The teenage daughter of Baron von der Malten is found butchered (along with her governess), her open abdominal cavity containing a live scorpion. Other scorpions scurry about the floor; on the wall there is writing, apparently ancient Syrian. With this scene the novel seems to plunge into gothic lunacy. Yet in the dense, tactile atmosphere Krajewski creates — of bordellos, orgies, torture chambers, Freemasons, Nazis, and degenerate aristocrats — the scorpion murder doesn’t seem that outlandish.  

Sure enough, it is rapidly solved.

Thanks to the Gestapo, the girl’s killer is immediately identified, tortured, and induced to commit suicide. He is, conveniently, a Jewish epileptic pet shop owner, but the truth is less convenient and far more convoluted. To uncover it, Mock must penetrate the ranks both of the decayed Prussian aristocracy and of the new Nazi power brokers, all the while risking exposure, not of his erotic tastes but of his Masonic affinity. Mock is assisted by Herbert Anwaldt, an alcoholic young officer recently arrived from Berlin and still haunted by memories of a childhood spent in an orphanage there. In Anwaldt, Mock finds the son he never had, a role that Anwaldt gratefully accepts even as he discovers his true identity, one that carries with it a death sentence.

This Oedipal theme, along with the Crusader revenge tale at the novel’s core, might well have derailed the Nazi-era plot, but Krajewski’s wonderfully laconic style and his painterly descriptions of place and character tether even the most overwrought scenes to a palpable reality. A Gestapo Hauptsturmführer, for example, is described as “…an overweight Brandenburgian, bare, freckled skull pasted down with clumps of red hair, green eyes, beefy cheeks; a lover of Schubert and underage girls,” while Rawicz is “…a pretty, neat little town full of flowers and dominated by red-brick prison watch towers.”

Similarly, in a Poznan apartment “…the spines of untouched books glittered and the green armchairs standing under a palm spread their soft insides. Through the open window wafted the nauseating, sweetish smell of the slaughterhouse.” What lies ahead, it seems, is already here.