Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt of Rage by Zygmunt Miloszewski

There was a piece of plywood lying on the frame, black with dampness, and on the plywood lay an old skeleton.

All eyes are on famous prosecutor Teodor Szacki when he investigates a skeleton discovered at a construction site in the idyllic Polish city of Olsztyn. Old bones come as no shock to anyone in this part of Poland, but it turns out these remains are fresh, the flesh chemically removed. Szacki questions the dead man’s wife, only to be left with a suspicion she’s hiding something. Then another victim surfaces—a violent husband, alive but maimed—giving rise to a theory: someone’s targeting domestic abusers. And as new clues bring the murderer closer to those Szacki holds dear, he begins to understand the terrible rage that drives people to murder. From acclaimed Polish crime writer Zygmunt Miloszewski comes a gritty, atmospheric page-turner that poses the question, what drives a sane man to kill?

***

From a distance it looked like the set for a fashion shoot, in industrial style. In the background the dark shape of the city hospital, built during the German era, emerged from the gloom. In the middle distance there was a yellow excavator leaning over a hole in the ground, as if peering into it out of curiosity, and close up was a patrol car. The streetlamps and the police vehicle’s headlights carved tunnels into the thick Warmian fog, casting strange shadows. There were three men standing next to the car, all staring at the hero of the scene, an immaculately dressed man with white hair, standing by the open door of an angular Citroën.

Szacki knew what the engineer, the policeman, and the unfamiliar young CID officer were all waiting for—for the pretty little pencil pusher from the prosecutor’s office to fall on his ass. He really was having a hard time keeping his balance on the cobblestones, which were coated, like everything else, in a thin layer of ice. The situation wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Mariańska Street ran slightly uphill, and the loafers he’d worn, to make an impression on the high school kids, were now behaving like skates. He was afraid he’d take a tumble as soon as he let go of the car door.

His presence, like that of the police, was a formality. The prosecutor was called out to every death outside the hospital where there was a concern of foul play. And a decision had to be made whether or not to launch an investigation. This meant that sometimes they had to tramp around a road-construction site or a gravel pit, where bones from more than a hundred years ago were quite often found. In Olsztyn it was called “checking off a German.” A thankless and time-consuming obligation, often involving an expedition to the other end of the province and wading up to your ankles in mud. Here, at least the German was lying in the center of town.

A formality. Szacki could call them over to have them tell him the facts, then fill out the forms in his nice warm office.

He could, but he never proceeded like that, and he realized he was too old to start changing his habits.

He spied some lumps of ice-coated mud on the ground, which should provide some grip. In four bizarre steps he reached the excavator and grabbed its muddy bucket, managing to restrain a smile of triumph.

“Where’s the corpse?”

The young CID officer pointed at the hole in the ground. Szacki had been expecting to see bones sticking out of the mud, but instead there was a black pit gaping in the roadway, with the top of a small aluminum ladder protruding from it. Ice-coated like everything else. Without hesitating, he descended. Whatever lay in wait for him down there was sure to be better than the freezing rain.

He groped his way downward; in the hole it smelled of wet concrete, and after a few steps he was standing on a hard, wet floor. Freezing rain was lashing through the opening a couple of feet above him, and he could reach up and touch the ceiling. He took off his gloves and ran a hand over it. Cold concrete. A shelter? A bunker?

He stepped back to make room for the CID officer. The policeman switched on a flashlight, and handed a second one to Szacki. Szacki put on the LED light and looked at his companion. Young, about thirty, with sad eyes and a very out-of-date mustache. Handsome, with the provincial good looks of a healthy farmer’s son who has done well for himself.

“Prosecutor Teodor Szacki.”

“Deputy Commissioner Jan Paweł Bierut.” The policeman made a gloomy face, surely expecting the joke he usually heard in this situation. It must have been hard sharing first names with the Pope and last names with an infamous Communist president.

“I don’t know you, but then I’ve only been here two years,” said Szacki.

“I was transferred recently from the traffic police.”

The constant rotation of CID staff was the bane of Szacki’s existence. No rookies ever turned up there, just officers who had already done their time, mostly in the operations department. Most of them soon found out that working in criminal investigation was nothing like being a detective in a Hollywood action movie, and they eagerly took advantage of early retirement. These days it was easier to find an experienced community cop than a CID officer.

Without a word, Bierut turned and set off down a regular concrete corridor that could have been the remains of anything—it didn’t matter much to Szacki. After a dozen paces the side walls disappeared, and they found themselves in a vaulted hall, square in shape, over six feet high and about fifty feet long. In one corner towered some rusty junk, including hospital beds, tables, and chairs. Bierut went past the heap and approached the opposite wall. There was a bed there, white in several places where the enamel hadn’t come off, elsewhere orange with rust. There was a piece of plywood lying on the frame, black with dampness, and on the plywood lay an old skeleton. Pretty much complete, as far as Szacki could tell, though the bones were partly mixed up, perhaps by rats, and some of them were lying on the floor. At any rate the skull was intact, with almost its entire dentition. The perfect German.

Szacki clamped his lips to avoid sighing. For months he’d been waiting for a decent case. It could be tough, or controversial, or not at all obvious. In any regard—investigative, evidential, or legislative. But there was nothing. Cases of a more serious nature had included two murders, one armed robbery, and a rape at the university campus. All the culprits had been caught the day after each incident. The murderers, because they were in the immediate family, the robber, because the street cameras had recorded him almost in HD quality, and the rapist, because his pals at the dorm had roughed him up, then taken him straight to the station—evidence that something was changing in this country after all. Not only were all the criminals detained the same day, they had all immediately confessed. They’d made detailed statements, and Szacki had been able to go home at four o’clock, without his blood pressure rising.

And now a German. For dessert, after the school gala.

Bierut cast him an inquiring glance. Szacki said nothing, because there was nothing to say. Bierut had such a sorrowful look on his face it was as if the bones belonged to a member of his family. If the policeman was like this all the time, his pals at the station were probably passing around the phone number of a therapist to get them out of their depression.

There was nothing to do here. Szacki swept the room with the flashlight, partly for the sake of routine, partly because he wanted to prolong the moment—it was far warmer down here, and he wasn’t being assailed by any atmospheric phenomena.

Nothing interesting. Bare walls and the ends of a few corridors; judging by the architecture, the room was an old shelter, probably for hospital staff and patients. There must be some buried entrances somewhere, washing facilities, maybe a few more halls like this, or smaller rooms.

“Have you checked the rest of this space?”

“It’s empty.”

Szacki wondered how it had happened. Were the patients evacuated for the duration of some shelling at the end of the war, then this guy died, and the rest got out? Was there too much going on for them to remember a single corpse left underground? Or maybe someone hid down here when the war was already over, and his heart gave out?

Szacki went up to the remains and examined the skull. No visible injuries, characteristic depressions or holes from being struck by a blunt instrument, and nothing remotely resembling a gunshot wound. If someone had helped the German to the world beyond, there was no evidence of it. Whatever, death hadn’t saved him from wartime or postwar looting.

“There were no clothes,” said Bierut, reading his thoughts.

Szacki nodded. Even supposing rodents and worms had eaten what was left, there should still be some shreds of material—buckles, clasps, buttons. Someone must have helped themselves just after his death, before the clothing began to disintegrate.

“Secure these remains and have them taken to the university. I’ll write an order for their transfer. We might as well find a use for the German.”

Old Warsaw practice. No John Doe ever ended up in the ground. First, it was a waste of the taxpayers’ money, and second, the medical schools were always happy to process the cadavers. Old bones were worth more to them than ivory.

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Rage will hit the bookstores on 1 Aug. Click here for more information about the book.

Zygmunt Miloszewski is an award-winning Polish novelist and screenwriter. His first two mysteries featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, Entanglement and A Grain of Truth, have received international recognition, making him the #1 bestselling author in Poland and one of the world’s best-known contemporary Polish writers. Miloszewski has won the Polityka Passport for Polish literature. He’s also twice won the High Calibre Award for the best Polish crime novel and earned two nominations to the French Prix du Polar Européen for the best European crime novel.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature and twice winner of the Found in Translation award. She has translated works by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists including Paweł Huelle, Olga Tokarczuk, and Jacek Dehnel, and by authors of reportage including Mariusz Szczygieł, Wojciech Jagielski, and Witold Szabłowski. She also translates poetry, essays, and books for children (including rhymes by Julian Tuwim, fiction by Janusz Korczak, and illustrated books such as Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizieliński). She is a mentor for the Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme run by Writer’s Centre Norwich and currently co-chair of the UK Translators Association.

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  • Allan Carter

    Such a informative discussion. Very learning details I read. Keep it up!