Monday, October 10, 2011

The indigestion of an unfulfilled duty

Eberhard Mock, Criminal Councillor investigating the serial killings that occur in The End of the World in Breslau (by Marek Krajewski), adheres to the maxim, primum edere deinde philossophari ("eat first, then philosophize").

I'm glad that he does. Apart from the detail that helps the historical setting of 1925 Breslau come alive, whenever Mock sits down to a meal, it gives the reader, as well as Mock himself, the time to consider and digest the investigation, not to mention the opportunity to reflect on events related to his personal life.

The troubled barman of Petruske's tavern placed a plate of thick, fried bacon slices in front of Mock. When Mock pointed to his empty tankard, the barman assumed an expression of someone greatly put upon. Mock decided to torment him even further by ordering some bread and horseradish. An existential agony swept across the barman's features.

Mock observed the effects of alcohol and anger in the eyes of the wretchedly dressed drunks crowding the tables and walls. The most genial person in the place seemed to be the blind accordionist playing a sentimental tune. Had he not been blind, he would been glaring at Mock just as amicably as the builders, carters, cabbies and bandits crammed into the bar.

Mock tore his eyes away from his brothers in alcoholic misery, and set about his food. First he decorated the slices of bacon with mounds of horseradish, then, using a knife, pressed it into a hot mush after which, with a faint sigh, he devoured the smoked and roasted meat followed by slices of dark, wholemeal bread. He washed down the strong taste of meat and horseradish with Haas beer.

Scanning the bar with bloodshot eyes, he listened to the swearing and cursing. Foremost in this were unemployed workers, embittered at the whole world. All of a sudden a butcher joined in their laments to complain about capitalist exploiters who undervalued his rare ability to decapitate a cow with one blow.

Mock had a revelation: the supper had not been unpalatable because it consisted of foul and badly prepared food, but because his mouth was acidic with the indigestion of an unfulfilled duty.

It's full of atmosphere and attitude; it has tremendous period verisimilitude, a smattering of Latin, and wit (you might call it a running gag that one of Mock's subordinates is chided for not knowing Latin — Krajewski himself is a classics scholar), which make this novel highly engrossing, despite the severe brutality.

The End of the World in Breslau is the second in Krajewski's series of Eberhard Mock investigations, but its events take place in 1925, well before those in Death in Breslau, which is set primarily in 1933. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Nazi elements of the first book, and the added level of intrigue with regard to the bureacracy and administration of a police investigation, I preferred this second novel with its "simpler" storylines.

There are the bizarre serial killings, the scenes of which always include a calendar page indicating the date of death. And then there's Mock's marriage — his wife feels mistreated and so sets out on her own sexual adventures and develops an association with the Monistic Community of Breslau (a kind of secret society — fictitious). The pacing is brilliant — Krajewski sticks with one storyline at a time, till just about the point where you're close to forgetting the other existed before he switches tracks.

Meanwhile, there's an end-of-the-world cult gaining popularity in Breslau. Oh, and there's some trouble with Mock's nephew, who is neglecting his studies and getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Do you think all these elements might be connected?

Mock is fairly unlikeable, though he does have a strong sense of justice. The fact of his moral ambiguity means you never know what he's going to do next.

I'm ordering up the third book of the series straight away. And I'm delighted to learn that there are even more Breslau books, although they are not yet translated.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. As a noir crime novel, it falls into a subcategory of mystery, but I think the end-of-world cult aspect gives it a nice, Halloween-y edge.]

1 comment:

Nymeth said...

I tend to really enjoy mysteries set in the 20's, and the Breslau setting would make for a nice change from my usual reading. Thank you for bringing this series to my attention.