It ought to be inappropriate to enjoy reading about Nazis this much. But fascists make good foils, and Nazi Noir, as it were, is enjoying a commanding run within the crime and espionage thriller. From Alan Furst’s continental spies to Philip Kerr’s Berlin cop, the genre’s archetype is a solitary avenger, his cynical side battling the romantic, and there is never any question of his rectitude.
Moody as they are, the books by Furst, Kerr, and other writers popular on this side of the Atlantic live in a relatively black-and-white world, which may owe something to the fact these are, for the most part, English or American writers. But move east to territories that had to live cheek to the Nazi jowl and the noir comes in varied shades of gray. Characters who survived under such predatory conditions had to possess a cunning and guile that would have made it difficult for them to always acquit themselves with absolute honor.
So fitting then to first meet Eberhard Mock, the protagonist in “Death in Breslau,’’ the first installment of Polish writer Marek Krajewski’s detective serial, in what should be a compromising situation for the deputy head of the criminal department of the Police Praesidium: during his weekly visit to a high-end bordello. This is Krajewski’s funny way of warning that on the moral compass in his side of Europe, magnetic north is a few more degrees off than it is in the West.
Mock must solve the grisly slaying of the teenage daughter of a prominent baron in Breslau, which in 1933 was a German city under the tightening grip of the Gestapo. The baron is Mock’s patron of sorts, and knows a secret about the detective that would cost him dearly with the Nazis. So when the baron becomes unsatisfied after the Nazis frame a hapless Jewish merchant for the murder — a development which Mock agreed to accept to advance his career — the detective has little choice when the loathsome aristocrat orders him to resume the investigation in earnest.
The baron also enlists another detective to work the case: a nervous alcoholic from Berlin named Herbert Anwaldt. To pursue their investigation the two descend into the carnal funhouse that is the underbelly of Breslau under Nazi rule — a city of sexual freaks, sniveling addicts, and other broken personalities, with the Gestapo present to add its own twisted fun.
Mock is a complex, compromised character; indifferent to his wife, selfish and untrustworthy, his shrewdness has a nasty edge to it. Anwaldt, meanwhile, is brilliant when he’s not a mess; but he’s a lost soul, an orphan adrift in an unforgiving world. Not surprisingly the two develop a bond: Anwaldt dependent on Mock’s tutelage; the elder developing what passes for paternal affection for his charge.
To a point. True to character, Mock ruthlessly uses Anwaldt to button up his own problems with the baron, at the cost of the younger man’s sanity. And in what feels like a plot deviation, Krajewski attempts to resolve Mock’s guilt over Anwaldt with a secondary story line that serves as the novel’s bookends. It comes off a little weird and confusing at first, and it’s hard to know whether Krajewski is being super clever or just trying too hard to wrap things up.
“Death in Breslau’’ is the first of four books Krajewski plans to build around Mock. The next two will move back in time, and it will be interesting to see how Krajewski accounts for the perverse landscape of Breslau without the helpful Nazis providing context.Andrew Caffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.