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Polish crime fiction
comes of age
For many American mystery and crime readers, Polish detectives
begin and end with Sara Paretsky’s iconic Chicago private
detective V.I. Warshawski–although V.I. only has a limited
knowledge of her Polish heritage. That’s likely to change,
writes Lenny Picker, as Poland begins to follow Scandinavia as
a source of a variety of high-quality and nuanced European
crime fiction for British and American audiences.
Olga Tokarczuk is arguably Poland’s most
eminent contemporary novelist. In 2015, she
won the Nike Prize, Poland’s top literary
award, for The Books of Jacob. A bestselling
historical novel about an 18th-century
false messiah, which gives an unflinching
depiction of the darker aspects of Poland’s
past (including anti-Semitism), the book
struck a nerve, and even led to death
threats from right-wing nationalists.
Tokarczuk offers another take on what it means to be Polish
in her first foray into the mystery genre. In the bestselling Drive
Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a very unusual amateur
sleuth, Janina Duszejko, comes to believe that a series of strange
murders of hunters in a remote corner of Poland were actually
perpetrated by animals taking revenge on their oppressors.
Because of her age and gender, Janina’s suspicions aren’t taken
seriously, which reflects, as Tokarczuk’s long-time translator
Antonia Lloyd-Jones puts it, the reality that “women, animals
and men who aren’t part of the establishment don’t do very
well in Polish society”. Published in 2009 by Wydawnictwo
Literackie, the book has been translated into German, French
and Swedish–and it will soon get even more attention, thanks
to a forthcoming film adaptation by Oscar-nominated director
Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness, Europa Europa).
Lloyd-Jones, who received grant support to translate excerpts
of this novel into English from the Polish Book Institute (PBI),
reports that work to secure English publication is making good
progress–and Tokarczuk, part of the official Polish writers’
delegation at the LBF, was the Author of the Day on 15th March.
Crime and reality
PBI director Dariusz Jaworski observes that after science fiction,
crime fiction is the fastest growing literary genre in Poland.
“Polish detective stories show the social diversity of Poland,”
says Jaworski, “and showcases the variety of our
authors’ approaches to the genre.” Poland even
has its own version of Bouchercon in the annual
Crime Fiction Festival, held in Wroclaw.
Jaworski believes that Poland’s social and
political realities have always been integral to
its crime fiction. Under Communist rule, “pro-
socialist crime novels glorified the Communist
Party,” he notes, while today’s Polish detective
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