Guest Blog: Polish Plots

Note: welcome to the third installment of this ongoing, but highly irregular, series of guest posts, in which fellow mystery enthusiasts temporarily usurp this blog for their own devices – and playing the role of supplanter for this entry is Patrick who blogs over At the Scene ofthe Crime. When I first bumped into Patrick, he was still going over the works of John Dickson Carr and was unfamiliar with even some of the more well-known GAD writers. So we made a few suggestions, nudged him in the right direction and you can read the result almost daily on his blog. Yeah, I know I should feel a pang of guilt for my part in the creation of this monster (he didn't know Rex Stout less than two years ago and is now reading Christopher Bush!), but I comfort myself with the thought that we gained a valuable ally and a future scholar to help us defend the detective story in the decades ahead of us. For this article, Patrick will be our guide in the world of the Polish mysteries.
When the Golden Age of Detective Fiction was in full swing, Poland was not really partaking in it. The reason for this is simple, as a quick history lesson will show. Between 1772 and 1795, Germany, Austria, and Russia partook in the Three Partitions of Poland, where they basically divided the country between themselves and made it disappear from the map until the end of World War I. After over 120 years of oppression, Poland was busily trying to build a country again, and thus, the detective story was not particularly popular.

And then World War II began, when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. World War II was another turbulent period in Polish history, as an effort was made to suppress Polish culture. A not-so-well-known item on Hitler’s agenda was to get rid of the Polish people and colonize Poland with Germans. Polish culture was once again under attack, and amidst all the fighting, the detective story quite obviously wasn’t about to flourish.

When World War II ended, one dictator was effectively replaced with another, as Stalin took Hitler’s place. The war on Polish culture waged on, as the Soviets basically attempted to suppress Polish identity, religion, etc. An excellent film on the turbulent period is Katyń by legendary filmmaker Andrzej Wajda about the massacre of Polish officers by Soviets in Katyń Forest. It’s a film that would have gotten Wajda killed if he’d made it 30 years earlier.

Obviously, after such a cycle of various oppressions, it would take time for the detective story to flourish in Poland, and for a long time, the only detective stories really published there have been those with an overt political flavour, involving corrupt governments and the like. But in recent years, Poland has seen a sort of rebirth in terms of the detective stories—Agatha Christie has been massively translated, as has been Erle Stanley Gardner. (John Dickson Carr, unfortunately, hasn’t been quite so lucky—in Warsaw’s public library, only a translation of The Devil in Velvet can be found in the catalogue.) With this rise of interest in the classical detective story is linked a rise of interest in Polish people writing their own detective stories.

The first sign of this movement might be seen in the work of Zbigniew Nienacki, who in 1957 began writing his series starring Pan Samochodzik (which can literally be translated as “Mr. Small Automobile”). In total, he wrote 15 novels. Two were completed after his death, and the series proved so wildly popular it’s being continued to this day with the last novel being released in May 2011. I hold this series dear to my heart because it’s influenced my tastes in mysteries very much.

Pan Samochodzik is like a Polish Indiana Jones—his real name is Tomasz N. N., and he holds a position in the Ministry of Culture. His adventures usually involve a hunt for some sort of artefact or other, but this formula allows for many variations. Sometimes Pan Samochodzik is doing the hunting, sometimes it’s the villain, but every time, a rollicking adventure is guaranteed. He is named after his remarkable car, which seems like an old piece of junk, but has a fine engine from a Ferrari on the inside. His inventor uncle also managed to give the car gadgets right out of a James Bond movie, making it a marvellous machine indeed.

When recently revisiting the series, I was struck by just how much it’s influenced me without my realising it. Pan Samochodzik I Fantomas (Pan Samochodzik and Fantomas) is a case in point. There, Pan Samochodzik investigates a mysterious series of thefts in a museum. An art thief calling himself Fantomas announces his thefts beforehand, naming the painting he will steal and the date by which he’ll do it, and he defiantly challenges museums to stop him. Naturally, security is upped, but Fantomas manages to strike again and again, stealing paintings under apparently impossible circumstances.

The situation itself is wonderful and I realized how it’s in the very finest tradition of the impossible crimes I love now. Unfortunately, the solution is in typical Nienacki style very underwhelming. The problem is that Nienacki rarely had a single culprit that you’d have to pick out among a set of suspects. Instead, a gang of international thieves is usually involved, and that suddenly makes everything easy going. The solution to the art thefts is remarkably slapdash, depending on a psychological improbability in order to work.

Another one of my favourites is Pan Samochodzik I człowiek z UFO (Pan Samochodzik and the Person from the UFO). It’s not even a proper mystery per se; Pan Samochodzik basically comes to Bogota to crush an international gang of thieves. But the novel is a fine adventure story, with mishap after mishap occurring. Throughout the proceedings, Pan Samochodzik must deal with a mysterious stranger who claims to be an alien, and he performs several miraculous, seemingly impossible feats—one in particular is impressive, where he puts on a suit that gives him powers of invisibility! Not to be outdone, Pan Samochodzik puts it on and… he gets the same powers! Unfortunately, the ending to this angle is not a particularly good one. Nienacki, instead of explaining the impossibilities, goes with an “ambiguous” ending where you’re not sure what just happened—was the man an actual alien? Or was Pan Samochodzik just high on cocaine?

Translations of these books into English seem very unlikely, but since you never know, I’ll avoid spoilers just in case. Far more interesting is an excellent Polish comedy from 1976, Brunet Wieczorową Porą (literally “Dark-haired man at evening time”, though “Brunet will call” conveys the title’s actual meaning far better). It is my favourite Polish comedy, and as you can tell from the date, Communism was still around in Poland, but the Polish identity was in full rebellion, trying to establish itself. The story’s hero is Michał Roman, a Polish editor who is alone at home— his wife and children have gone on vacation. A Gypsy knocks at the door, having apparently injured her hand, and Michał helps her. In return, the Gypsy tells his fortune—she tells him his lucky numbers, for instance. Then, her face clouds over, and she tells him that the very next day, a brunet will call in the evening… and Michał will kill him!

The next day, strange things begin to happen. The milkman finds Michał’s watch, just as predicted. The “lucky numbers” turn out to be the winning lottery numbers. As prediction after prediction is fulfilled, Michał gets uneasy and tries to isolate himself for the day, but the strategy doesn’t work. A brunet walks into the house and Michał, terrified, gets rid of him. Then, happy that he’s messed up the prediction, he goes to bed. But in the middle of the night, he wakes up, and stumbles to the hallway, where he accidentally knocks a box of knives off of the staircase. When he goes downstairs, he stares in horror: the brunet who came to the house earlier is there, stabbed to death!

Michał turns to his friend Kazik Malinowski, played by Wiesław Golas. He manages to explain the miracle of the Gypsy’s predictions brilliantly— I particularly marvelled at the simplicity of her prediction for the winning lottery numbers. But one question is left: who is the culprit? To solve this, Kazik and Michał rely on a clue of extreme stupidity, but to be fair, that’s the point. The movie is after all a comedy, and the “clue” that gives the killer away is a hilarious generalisation about American crime films that was made earlier in the movie. This all sets up a brilliant final joke, when the milicja asks Michał how he figured it out. He gives them a piece of advice, and as the credits role, they stop a random, perfectly harmless person on the street based on the advice!!!

The sense of humour is very Polish indeed, and jokes are made at the expense of Polish people, Americans, and (especially) Russians. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes takes place in a museum, where all the artefacts are bottles that Russians have used throughout the ages to get Polish people drunk! With a little more work, the film could’ve been had sublime impossible crime while being an excellent comedy, but as it stands, the movie is perfectly fine.

That’s all very well, you might say, but I’ve mentioned some rather old things! What is going on in Poland right now on the mystery front? Well, I discovered that some of our novels are actually crossing the language border, with Zygmunt Miłoszewski getting translated. I have yet to read one of his books (which are proving to be harder for me to procure than I expected). However, although the books are being billed as “Polish noir”, considerable emphasis is placed on his sense of humour and wit, as well as the plotting. Also, I haven’t heard the words “gritty”, “unflinching”, or “transcends the genre” in connection with these books. That raises hopes quite a bit.

Another interesting achievement is Anna Kańtoch’s Diabeł na Wieży (The Devil on the Tower) and Zabawki Diabła (The Devil’s Toys). These are short story collections that combine the classic mystery with the fantasy genre—at least, that’s how it’s understood in Poland! These are wonderfully atmospheric tales that invoke the supernatural, and I have finally managed to get copies of both books. I hope to be able to review them soon on my blog; the arrival of several obscure Interlibrary Loans has unfortunately delayed my reading much more at the moment. However, what I’ve read is brilliant—Kańtoch has a gift for creating atmosphere and for coming up with macabre imagery and situations. In the first story of Diabeł na Wieży, her characters come across a well that is filled with children’s toys… and all of them have their eyes gouged out!!!

Finally, there is a promising television series airing on TV Polonia called Ojciec Mateusz (Father Mateusz). These are blatantly influenced by G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown tales. Ojciec Mateusz is a kind man who has recently been kicked out of Belarus by the authorities, who don’t consider him in a positive light. Mateusz is assigned to a new parish in Sandomierz by the bishop, where he meets a colourful cast of recurring characters, including Peter, the snarky organist, and the housekeeper Natalia, who insists on cooking meals for the priest. (Unfortunately, she has yet to show talent for the subtle art of cooking, and would undoubtedly give Nero Wolfe indigestion!) Mateusz is simply a man of strong faith trying to do what is right and good, and in the process, he comes across several mysteries that he resolves using common sense.

Father Mateusz
The first episode in the series is Obcy (The Stranger). Father Mateusz comes to his new parish, and almost immediately comes into contact with violent death. A member of the Arab community has died, and his wife simply does not believe that he has committed suicide. Mateusz investigates and manages to make the local chief of police very unhappy in the process (although he befriends one of the officers who keeps him up to date). The suspects are not very numerous and the ending is not all that surprising, but unfortunately, it isn’t fairly clued at all. When confronting the culprit, they reply that the priest has no proof, to which he answers he doesn’t need any—that’s for the police.

Episode 2, Eksperyment (The Experiment) is far better. A doctor has apparently botched an operation on a little girl who is now in critical condition, and her father is understandably irate. When the doctor is found dead in the parking lot, the police first suspect an accident—after all, he died when he slipped down a set of dangerous stairs in pouring rain. Mateusz is not convinced, though, and he brilliantly deduces murder in the finest tradition of Golden Age mysteries, with the clue that isn’t there. Unfortunately, this leads to the arrest of the obvious suspect, who protests he is innocent. The ending is excellent, because it manages to be fairly clued and have a very good motive at its core.

Episode 3, Dług (The Debt) is interesting. Father Mateusz tackles ruthless loan sharks who are terrorising parishioners of his, threatening the life of their child. Unfortunately, not much is done with this premise— Mateusz figures out who the leader is (not much of a surprise) and from then on, it’s a game of Ring Around the Rosy until the victims are persuaded to denounce the culprit.

However, even if the mystery is not much good, every episode in this television series is quite watchable. The religious angle is not overplayed, but it is prominent— Polish people are very Catholic after all, and thus, this move is quite understandable. The characters are a true delight and the main character, Mateusz, manages to be a likeable, honest man whom you want to see succeed. Because the main character is so good, the rest of the series follows suit. However, if you look it up on IMDb, it has a shocking low rating of 4.5 stars!!! I have no idea why—the series is not 10-star material, but it is worth at least 6 stars. The low number of votes has probably got something to do with it, and I also can’t find English subtitled versions of the episodes online.

Perhaps the day will come where the Polish imagination is exploited to its full potential in the realm of detective stories. It’s coming soon, I hope—the genre is growing more and more popular in Poland. And after all, don’t the Polish people deserve a mystery craze? The “political” sort of mystery is still very popular in Poland, but the appearance of new forms and excellent authors are promising. The market is youthful and full of potential— let’s just hope it doesn’t get corrupted by the noir craze that has turned the modern mystery novel into character angst combined with graphic violence.

Foreign mysteries discussed on this blog spot:

The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
The Last Chance (M.P.O. Books, 2011)
Death in Dream Time (S.H. Courtier, 1959)
Murder During the Final Exams (Tjalling Dix, 1957)
Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)
Romance in F-Dur (Ben van Eysselsteijn, 19??)
The Black-Box Murder (Maarten Maartens, 1898; reviewed by M.P.O. Books)  
Lead for the Family (Martin Méroy, 1959)
Murder in a Darkened Room (Martin Méroy, 1965)
The Sins of Father Knox (Josef Skvorecky, 1973)
Case Closed, volume 38: On the Ropes (review of Case Closed) 
The Melody of Logic Must Be Played Truthfully (discussing Spiral: The Bonds or Reasoning)
Kindaichi: The Good, The Bad and The Average (dicussing The Kindaichi Case Files)


  1. And of course, all this trouble is really an elaborate ploy to distract me from finishing the work of John Dickson Carr too quickly! :)

    I enjoyed writing this article, and hopefully, I've interested people in some of the things I mentioned. I selfishly held back a detailed review of "Diabel na Wiezy" since I have no prospect of finishing it in the next little bit, but everything else was most unselfish-- I had been hoping to review "Brunet Wieczorowa Pora" on my blog before, and by a stroke of luck, had not done so yet when you proposed this guest blog. :)

    I have seen a few English subtitles for that movie online, but when I tried them out, they were completely out of sync with the movie. I will keep searching and if I find any, I'll let you all know.

  2. It was an enlightening article to read and you definitely piqued my interest with Anna Kańtoch, but, as to be expected, her stories are not available to me. But who knows what the future might bring, eh?

    And Father Mateusz also caught my eye. I actually did a quick search for subbed episodes, but without the desired result, however, it proof the point I was trying to make in an earlier blog post about what might be hidden outside of our language barrier - and here we have something that amounts to a contemporary version of Father Brown!

    Anyway, once again thank you for taking the time to write this article.