Formerly a Classics lecturer at Wrocław University, crime writer Marek Krajewski has won international acclaim for his series of detective novels set in inter-war Breslau (today’s Wrocław). The Insider finds out.
Where did your idea of a detective staking the streets of inter-war Breslau come from?
This is a very complicated place with a complex historical background – it’s belonged to Germany, Czech and Poland. That history has left many footsteps around the city. Under communism no-one spoke about the German past, the communists wanted to build the idea that Wrocław was always Polish. But I saw the German footsteps, and kept asking myself, is this a German city or Polish. I tried to describe this history through my invention, Eberhard Mock. I love crime stories and I love history – I connected these two interests through him.
Your books are known for their precise level of detail. Your research must have been painstaking?
Oh it was very complicated. I’d sit in the University library for hours, reading German era newspapers, address books and directories, finding the names of restaurants and looking through old adverts for beers, perfume and cigarettes. And, of course, maps, the old maps of Breslau. The research wasn’t easy but it was such an interesting trip into the past.
Eberhard Mock doesn’t play by the rules – he’s from the mold of detectives with an edge to them. He’s not Mr. Nice Guy. What similarities do you share?
Well, of course there are details I have in common with my ‘hero’. I’m very pedantic, very accurate, which is clearly one of his features. I’m also a classicist, having studied and taught classical theology at the University. And he loves very fatty food – well me too! But that’s where the similarities stop.
You write about inter-war Breslau. How has the reaction been with regards to covering a chapter of local history that some would rather not remember…
Before 1989 there were many taboos in Poland, and that included Wrocław’s German past. But straight after the political changes you’d see the locals buying up books with photos of the old city, comparing pictures – they wanted to know what stood here before and connect to the past. Most people don’t have a problem it. Wrocław is our home and we feel comfortable with it and comfortable with its multi-cultural history. That’s a great feature of this city.
How did the first book come about?
In 1997 the region was hit by very heavy flooding and I had to evacuate from the city. So off I went to the country, staying in this wooden house in the forest. In the panic I left all my materials and books for my thesis behind, so all of a sudden I had a lot of time but nothing to do. I decided to write the novel that had always been sitting in the back of my head. After a few months it was finished!
What is it about the inter bellum that fascinates you?
The whole period is compelling. There was a deviancy to the time: so many of these occult groups, strange sects, practitioners of the black arts, Satanists and suchlike. There was an atmosphere of real decadence.
You’ve been translated into 20 languages. People who might otherwise never have heard of Wrocław / Breslau now have because of your books. You’ve done a lot for the city, has the city helped you at all?
I have a very good relationship with the city. For example, in 2016 Wrocław will be the European Capital of Culture, and as part of that the city is going to create the Eberhard Mock Literary Museum, along the lines of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London. They’re going to recreate Mock’s flat!
When you started out as an author that must have been beyond your wildest dreams?
I’m amazed. But look, when I finished my first book I didn’t even imagine the book being published, let alone having a museum dedicated to my character. The 90s was a bad time for authors in Poland. The literary market was incredibly small in those days, and no-one was writing crime stories.
Why did this change?
You’d have to ask the publishers and their risk assessors – I’m just an author! But I think during communism crime fiction was regarded as lower class literature, you wouldn’t find academics admitting to reading it. But times have changed.
While you gave up lecturing seven years ago, for a time you pursued both careers. How did your colleagues and students react to your other life?
I remember teaching Latin grammar classes in the lead-up to exam season. I noticed all of a sudden there were a lot of students interested in my work: “what beautiful books you write,” they’d say. Of course, it didn’t help them come exam time! As for my colleagues, they were astonished when they heard for the first time. I mean, for much of the year I was a very serious academic teacher but in summer I’d go to Antonin to write. It was a double life of sorts. But after a few years they got used it, they ‘had my back’ so to speak.
What is your writing routine…
I’m very pedantic – I work nine to five, five days a week. For six or seven hours I’ll be sat in front of the computer with my door locked. There’ll be no cigarettes, no coffee, just a strong pot of tea and maybe a little music: Bach. I’ve got a big flat in an old building and my room is filled with books, 3,000 I think. There’s lots of old manuscripts lying around, books in Latin, German and from the 18th century. The only new thing in there is the computer, everything else, all the bookshelves and tables, are 19th century. It’s a comfortable environment in which to write.
Who inspires you?
Raymond Chandler is my ultimate literary master. I just love his books and his principal character, Philip Marlowe. And, secondly, I love those French crime films from the 60s and 70s – the films by Jean-Pierre Melville, with these brutal detectives, are fantastic.
Is there any news on the film front?
Yes, in the New Year Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland will make four film adaptations of the books. It’ll be an international production and while I don’t know who’ll play Mock, it’d be my dream to have Kevin Spacey! She did direct an episode of House of Cards starring Spacey, and he also appeared in a Polish advert for BZ WBK bank recently, so who knows!