LONDON — While Poland currently has one of the lower crime rates in the European Union, the country appears to be in the midst of a crime obsession — at least of the fictional variety.
According to the crime writer Irek Grin — who is the director of Wroclaw’s International Festival of Crime Fiction (Miedzynarodowy Festiwal Kryminalu) — in 2003, only four Polish thrillers were released, while last year 112 crime novels were published.
In the past decade, homegrown crime fiction has become one of the most popular literary genres in Poland. And in a field that has been dominated by British, American and, most recently, Scandinavian writers, it seems poised to grab the attention of crime fiction fans around the world.
Part of what distinguishes Polish crime novels is their settings, with many of the most successful books using Poland’s rich and tumultuous 20th-century history as a backdrop.
Marek Krajewski, whose retro series starring Inspector Eberhard Mock has been published in over 20 languages, for instance, has mined his country’s past for his popular historical thrillers. He is currently writing a book that will be set in Wroclaw in 1956. Marcin Wronski, a poet, has set many of his atmospheric mysteries (they have been translated into Russian) in prewar Lublin. The husband-and-wife writing team of Malgorzata Fugiel-Kuzminska and Michal Kuzminski focused their thriller “Sekret Kroke” — which was published in French last November — in Krakow during the interwar years.“The originality of Polish crime novels is based on the description of strange, complicated Polish circumstances — of an either modern or historical nature — in the attractive form of a crime story,” Mr. Krajewski wrote in an email, but added that “although these authors are deeply involved in Polish history and in the problems of today’s Poland, they can be read everywhere.”
Although crime novels were popular in Poland under Communism — the country mourned last October when the 1960s and 1970s comic crime writer Joanna Chmielewska died — the genre did not take off until a decade ago. “The 1990s was a decade of transition, we were not sure what was going to come next,” said Wojciech Orlinski, a literary critic with Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s most popular daily. “But once we felt more secure with our day-to-day life and a middle class emerged, people started to have more leisure time to read.”
Mr. Kuzminski added that, “For decades, Poland was perceived as terra incognita, whereas now, we are on the other side of this cultural boundary, part of the European Union, but we are still very different in terms of history and culture.” He added, “The phenomenon of Scandinavian crime was based on what is behind this highly developed civil society and welfare state, which is the common ground of their crime stories. Whereas here in Poland, we are dealing with our past, with our traumas, our developments.”
Publishers in Poland do not publicly track print runs or sales, but Beata Stasinska, the chief editor of WAB Publishers, one of the biggest publishers for crime fiction in Poland, said that the number of Polish crime books has been rising, with more titles being released each year.
She added that all five of Mr. Krajewski’s books featuring Eberhard Mock published by WAB books had sold more than 50,000 copies each, while Mr. Miloszewski’s thrillers have sold 200,000 in Poland.
The popularity in Polish crime fiction has grown outside the country, too. Zygmunt Miloszewski, whose second thriller “A Grain of Truth,” tackles issues of anti-Semitism in modern Poland, has been published in several languages and has met with critical success in other countries including France and the United States. The book was just published in Israel in February, and Mr. Miloszewski’s first book, “Entanglement,” will be published in Turkish this year.
Polish crime novels are popular also in Britain, which has seen an influx of Poles coming to live and work in the country. “The last few years we have observed a few publishing houses releasing more authors from Eastern Europe, especially Poland, which might tie in with the large numbers of Poles living in the U.K. and curiosity by the British public in Polish culture,” said Joanna Zgadzaj, the co-founder of Stork Press, a British publisher that focuses on Central and East European writers.
As evidence of the genre’s popularity, more than 50 people crammed into a small bookshop in London’s Belgravia district recently to attend a night devoted to Polish crime fiction. At the event, Mariusz Czubaj — his latest book “Martwe Popoludnie” (Dead Afternoon) will be published in Poland in April — and Joanna Jodelka, whose book “Polychrome” recently came out in paperback in English, talked about why Polish crime fiction has found an audience outside of their country.
Part of the evening also focused on the issue of translation, which has so far presented the biggest obstacle for Polish crime fiction getting more of a foothold on the global literary scene. Rosie Goldsmith, an arts journalist who led the London event, said in an interview that the quality of translation of Polish crime prose is improving but “it is a matter of keeping the momentum.”
Mr. Miloszewski, whose recent mystery “Priceless” sold over 80,000 copies in just four months when it was released in Poland, agreed. “I am an example of a writer who comes from the Eastern European capital of crime fiction,” he said. “As I get noticed and other writers do too, there is success to follow.”
That success could also be bolstered by film adaptations — something that certainly proved to be the case with the global popularity of Nordic crime fiction. Later this spring, the Academy Award-nominated director Agnieszka Holland is set to begin shooting a movie based on Ms. Tokarczuk’s novel, while the noted Polish film director Borys Lankosz is to start filming Mr. Miloszewski’s “A Grain of Truth” in April.
This autumn Ms. Holland’s daughter, Kasia Adamik, will direct “Amok” in Wroclaw; the Polish/German/Swedish film co-production is based on the life-imitates-art story of the crime writer Krystian Bala, whose 2003 thriller focused on a group of sadists. Mr. Bala was later accused of and is serving time for a murder similar to one in his novel.
“A crime novel cannot be a simple whodunit anymore,” said Mr. Miloszewski, who is finishing up his latest thriller, which will be published in the autumn in Poland and translated into English early next year. “What appeals to Western audiences is that in contemporary crime fiction, you would like to know as a reader how a society works. What we are, what we believe, what we dream about, what are the tensions and issues in our society — it is the greatest mystery in these mystery novels to discover.”
photo 1: Mariusz Czubaj and Marek Krajewski; photo 2 : Joanna Jodelka