Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The discovery of a skeleton in a construction site in the historic Polish city of Olsztyn brings Prosecutor Teodor Szacki into the spotlight when it is discovered that the bones are fresh, the rest of the body chemically dissolved. Identifying the remains proves relatively easy, but that’s only the start of Szacki’s problems. When more victims turn up, it becomes clear that the killer is carrying out their own flavour of vigilante justice on perpetrators of domestic abuse. With the kidnap of Szacki’s teenage daughter, things become personal, and Szacki finds himself closer to an answer to the age-old question: what could be enough to make a man kill?
I’m not a fan of jumping into series that are already several books along, and Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s latest, Rage, is a very good example why: after spending the book discovering a great new voice in crime fiction, and a protagonist who is unlike any other I have encountered, it turns out that this is said protagonist’s final book. While it’s a disappointing end to an excellent book, Rage does work very well as a standalone novel, and Teodor Szacki is a character you are unlikely to forget.
Szacki himself is a prosecutor, the sort of character who turns up all the time in European crime fiction, but who doesn’t have any counterpart in the British or American justice systems. Originally from Warsaw, Szacki is now practicing in the historic city of Olsztyn and he immediately comes across as the big-city character who, despite the pros, can always find something to complain about in his new provincial surroundings. If it isn’t the region’s dreary weather, it’s the traffic planner, and if not him, then Szacki is sure to have something else to complain about.
Despite his gruff ways, he’s an interesting character, a man with a tough exterior coating a softer – and distinctly likeable – centre. There is a black humour that pervades the novel’s every page, a kind of gallows humour that brings levity even at the most unexpected moment, and it often comes from Szacki’s very cynical viewpoint. He finds himself surrounded by one of the oddest casts of characters ever gathered behind the cover of a serious novel, from his boss who refers to him as Misterteo, his by-the-book and thoroughly inflexible subordinate Falk, to the university anatomist with the unlikely name of Doctor Frankenstein.
Despite the humour, and the somewhat off-the-wall characters, Rage brings with it an important message, shining a light on the topic of domestic abuse, and how it is dealt with – or, more often, ignored until it is far too late – by the authorities in many countries: Szacki finds himself in the uncomfortable position of potentially sending one woman home to her death, the result of a very old-fashioned viewpoint combined with the lack of a clear strategy for dealing with the sort of cases that Miłoszewski uses to highlight the problem. And in order to remove any doubt from the mind of the reader, the author places his story in a very specific period in time – late 2013 – by opening each chapter with a brief overview of that day’s news, starting from a global perspective, and working towards news local to the novel’s setting (amusingly, these news reports always end with a distinctly gloomy weather forecast for the region).
The novel takes a dark turn as Szacki makes the final deductive leap and realises who is behind the horrific murders and mutilations. It’s an unexpected turn, a moment of horror that jars the reader out of the complacency so wonderfully evoked by the author’s storytelling style. It forces us to stop and question our loyalties and poses the difficult question: what might I have done in the same position? It’s a master-stroke and ensures that Rage will remain with the reader long after the final page.
This is dark – and darkly humorous – European crime fiction at its best. Anyone who has enjoyed the Verhoeven novels of Pierre Lemaitre will find something to love in Teodor Szacki and the novels of Zygmunt Miłoszewski. If, like me, you’d prefer to meet Szacki at the start of his fictional journey, it’s probably best to start with Entanglement and work forwards, but there may be benefit to starting with Rage and reading out of order – I’ll certainly let you know when I’ve gone back and read the others. Miłoszewski is a writer of unmatched talent, and Rage, ably translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is one of the finest novels you’ll read this year. Not to be missed.