A precisely constructed plot linked not so much by crime as by
The next day I made an appointment at the hairdresser’s and told pani Zosia to return my hair to its natural grey colour. I went into the store with brown hair and came out with it white as milk. Examining myself later in the mirror I thought I really looked like an old lady. Not a senior citizen or a mature woman or someone of advanced years, just an ordinary old lady whose face was carved with deep furrows. Those furrows had appeared early, even before I turned 50, and used to cause me a great deal of anguish. But now my face had become my ally. I didn’t feel like an old lady, but I looked like one and was glad I did, since old ladies aren’t so dangerous, no one suspects old ladies, and I already knew I intended to commit a crime.
I saw Jacek for the first time when winter was still in full swing. It was Wednesday, 21 March, the first day of spring, though it was even snowing and raining at the same time. Nevertheless, fed up with sitting at home for ages, I decided to get out my Nordic walking sticks from the cupboard and go out for some exercise. Mud caked on my boots and cold wind blasted in my face as I walked toward Bolina. Theoretically it’s a park – at least that’s what it says on the sign – but in practice it’s more of a… recreation area? I don’t know if that’s a good way of putting it. There are two sports grounds: one soccer field and one basketball court, a playground for children, a pair of crisscrossing walkways, a restaurant with a garden and a covered area for barbecuing. Of course all this was empty that time of year, the only people I came across were an older lady with her dog and a young woman jogging stubbornly along in thin running gear.
I was making my way back freezing and tired, but in a better mood. The wind had driven away the Silesian smog and for the first time in many days you could breathe freely outside. On the way I stepped into Rabat to buy a coffee, milk and of course the inevitable meatballs in tomato sauce for lunch. That was when I saw him.
He was standing by the cool shelf, holding a pack of cheese-and-potato pierogies. I remember he glanced at me and I wanted to give him a sympathetic look, because I thought I’d found a soulmate, yet another older person living on pre-made food. Then I recognized him. It had been 50 years since we’d laid eyes on one another, yet I had no doubts. We all change with time, but amid those changes some of us maintain a certain… constancy. Like Jacek. He was now grey, hunched and wrinkly, but it was still him. His gaze passed over me indifferently on its way to the counter with the fish display. He didn’t recognise me, of course not. I knew it had been a long time since I’d looked anything like the plump, dimpled girl he might remember. When I turned 40, the people I knew from college stopped recognizing me, and I’d changed even more since then. So I stood there and watched him putting a greasy mackerel into his basket. I situated myself just behind him in the checkout line, completely forgetting about the coffee and milk, and then I followed him all the way home. He lived at the end of Zamkowa Street in a one-story villa surrounded by a tall iron fence. What was on my mind as I looked at that house? As I stood at the edge of the forest, feeling the drops of drizzle landing on my face, I think nothing had occurred to me yet, I was just amazed that fate had finally thrown us so close together. Only later, on my way home, as I passed the angular 1970s apartment buildings and much older brick familoki with chimneys giving off grey smoke, did I realise the obvious truth: Jacek must have been among the wealthiest inhabitants of our eclectic neighbourhood. I had a two-room apartment while he had ended up with a villa. No, this was nothing so primitive as envy, rather a certain… craving for justice.
Excerpt translated by Sean G. Bye
A precisely constructed plot linked not so much by crime as by
Anna Kańtoch began her career – successfully – with fantasy (she has received numerous awards for her sci-fi and fantasy novels and short stories). Since 2013 she has also been writing crime novels, advancing to be one of the leading Polish authors in that genre. Her new trilogy (of which two have been published so far – Spring of the Missing and Summer of the Lost) not only consolidates Kańtoch’s position on the Polish scene, but also shows this Silesian author is an independent trailblazer.
We meet the main character of this series in Spring of the Missing as a retired police officer: Krystyna Lesińska is already over 70. But Spring… is no “cozy mystery” and Lesińska herself – caustic, withdrawn, painfully exacting – doesn’t have an ounce of Miss Marple in her. A curse hangs over her life: her brother went missing a half century ago in the Tatra Mountains, and someone killed three of his friends on that same trip. This trauma drove Lesińska into police work, but now, years later and quite suddenly, she has the chance to solve the riddle and even to get revenge… The next book, Summer of the Lost, takes us back in time to the late 1990s. Lesińska is still an active police officer and a complicated investigation is underway in the case of the murder of a married couple and their two children in a remote forester’s lodge. Investigating this crime becomes a peculiar kind of study of human (un)consciousness: who could be the “I” that ended these people’s lives?
Kańtoch constructs the plot with precision, but these novels are linked not so much by crime as by psychological, emotional sensitivity: they’re stories about the paradoxes of memory and personality, of loneliness, isolation, fear and families falling apart. Yet Kańtoch approaches these themes differently than the currently fashionable domestic thrillers – she doesn’t build an atmosphere of danger, but rather opts for the main character’s calm fatalism, seasoned with the fairly cynical misanthropy of a mature woman with no illusions. It’s no surprise that Spring of the Missing received the prestigious High Calibre Prize for the best Polish crime novel of 2020.
Translated by Sean G. Bye
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