Katarzyna Bonda has made a name for herself as the author of a series of crime novels about the Silesian profiler Hubert Meyer, of which the best, by far, is The Florist. The writer was also the first in Poland to introduce a police profiler character in her 2007 novel The Case of Nina Frank.
The protagonist of her most recent book, The Absorber, which opens a tetralogy, is a profiler again, but this time a female one (which is another novelty in Polish crime fiction). Sasha Załuska’s own story is also a captivating one, though the reader only gets snippets of it.
Sasha is only thirty-six, but has been through a lot in life. She was a police detective, but after she made a mess of a serial killer’s arrest and her alcohol problem came to light, she was fired from her job. However, the disgraced policewoman managed to get her act together. She gave birth to a daughter and started a course in Investigative Psychology at the famous University of Huddersfield, a hotbed for profilers. In 2013 the single mother and her daughter return to their home country. They settle in Sopot. A local businessman who owns a successful club contacts Załuska. He claims that somebody, most likely his business partner, a fallen rock star, wants to kill him. He commissions Sasha to solve the case. Załuska has no idea that she is getting herself into a highly complicated intrigue. Soon afterwards, the rocker is murdered and his female employee is wounded by a gunshot. The investigation leads the profiler to the case of the mysterious deaths of teenage siblings in the early 1990s.
Bonda writes crime novels with plots that are complicated, but clear and logical. The Absorber is no different. Most readers will focus their attention on the protagonist, which is not surprising since she makes a fascinating character, perhaps even one of the most interesting characters in crime fiction of recent years. However, there are two other themes featured strongly in The Absorber. Apart from the mystery and the motif of crime and punishment, it is a book about the Polish mafia. It seems to be an obvious subject, discussed over and over again in the media, mentioned every time another mobster is taken to court, but it still does not feature often in crime fiction. Bonda describes the process of building the structures of the mafia in Poland at the turning point of political and economical change in 1989. At first these groups profited mainly from car theft and smuggling alcohol and cigarettes. These were very rough people, not afraid to get rid of anyone who stood in their way. However, Poland’s transformation also brought about a transformation in the mafia. Mobsters entered into drug-dealing territory and then started hiding their criminal activity, disguising it behind the fronts of legal companies and entering the realms of economic crime. Armed bandits turned into ruthless businessmen unscrupulously using the power of money, practically exempt from punishment since they had politicians of various levels under their thumbs, as well as policemen and bureaucrats.
The Absorber is Bonda’s best crime novel so far and one of the finest written recently in Poland. With this book, the Warsaw-based writer has proven that home-grown crime fiction can be more interesting than globally popular Scandinavian crime writing.
Translated by Anna Hyde
Sasha had just reached the club. It wasn’t difficult to find, because there were distressed people running around by the entrance to the building on the opposite side of the street. A woman lamented that they would be left in the darkness through the whole holiday period.
“Go to the kids, woman,” her husband silenced her and got into the car to speed up the arrival of the emergency services.
The profiler entered the courtyard. She approached steel doors with Shiva’s third eye in place of a spyhole. There was a sticker with the club’s name and its logo next to the light switch. No signboard, no neon light. Nothing suggesting that it was a popular joint. But she’d had a look at Needle’s Facebook page and knew that it was a fashionable place – if its attractiveness was to be measured by the number of likes. There were loads of them, over forty thousand. Knocking was to no avail. She looked around, came out of the building’s entrance and approached the woman who now seemed calmer than before.
“Excuse me, do you perhaps know how to get in?” she asked politely and pointed to the club on the other side of the street.
The woman gave her a sideward glance.
“I don’t go there,” she snorted. “You need to ring the bell.”
“Ring the bell?”
“There, on the other side, under a brick, there’s a button.”
Sasha thanked her. She smiled to herself. The woman doesn’t go there, but she knows how to get in.
“But it won’t work now. There’s no power,” the neighbour added. “You better wait. Soon they’ll creep out of their own accord, those barflies.” Indeed, there was a button under a brick and it didn’t work. Sasha looked at the building. Pretty, though not the prettiest on the street, very run-down, with a wooden porch and ornamented roof, only flats around. On her way here she passed the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. There was also a bigger military church not far from here. How on earth had they managed to get permission to organise concerts and sell alcohol in such a place?
Suddenly the head of a pretty blonde appeared from behind the door. The girl was no more than twenty years old.
“Are you from the electricity company?”
A moment of hesitation on the profiler’s part was enough and the blonde slammed the door shut. But she didn’t manage to bolt it. Sasha grabbed the door handle and for a moment they were pushing and pulling.
“It’s closed,” the blonde reproached.
“I was commissioned by Paweł Bławicki.” The resistance lessened. “I’m an expert profiler. I’d like to talk to Łucja Lange.”
A furrowed brow and then a sudden giggle.
“She’s not here.”
“How about Iza Kozak or Janek Wiśniewski? It’s urgent. I would rather come inside to explain.”
The woman was still suspicious, but she opened the door.
“The fuses are blown.”
She laughed again.
Sasha couldn’t quite understand the girl’s compulsive behaviour.
“I see,” she muttered in response.
She took a small torch out of her handbag and lit the way down the stairs into the cellar. The club seemed empty, but the girl was definitely not alone here. There were several coats in the cloakroom.
Załuska was surprised to see that the cellar was bigger than she thought. The rooms were spacious and recently renovated, which was more than could be said about the building’s facade.
“Somebody to see you,” the blonde announced her with a lilt. She also made a gesture straight from a cheerleaders’ routine, clearly unfazed by the lack of pompoms.
“Did you want to see me?” A low, raspy voice purred by her ear.
She turned around. A short man of about forty was standing in front of her. She realised that the picture she had been given was not up to date. He’d changed his image for something more age-appropriate since. She also found him far more handsome in person. Dark eyes, squinting mischievously. A face covered with a few days old stubble. Boyish, dishevelled hair. Dyed blonde. He was dressed in a t-shirt, leather jacket, white jeans and leather Converse trainers. She was staring at him, completely baffled and petrified at the same time. Déjà vu only happens in films, but this man reminded her of somebody who mattered a lot to her. That person had been dead for seven years. Everything was different: the place, the joint, the clothes and the man’s face. But the rest, all of the surroundings, matched. Votive candles, his silhouette in soft light and the darkness of the basement. She stood still like a pillar of salt and felt herself blushing like some schoolgirl. He extended his hand to her. He had a pleated bracelet on his wrist and a ring with a blue stone on his finger.
“I’m Needle,” he introduced himself. The corner of his mouth twitched. Even that little grimace she knew very well.
“Sasha Załuska. Do you perhaps have a twin brother?”
“Not that I know of.”
The blonde who let Sasha in joined them. She put her arm around the singer to mark her territory. He stiffened straightaway, getting into the role.
“So you’re the star, are you?” Załuska regained her self-control. She noticed that he was vain, like all artists. A cheap compliment pleased him. “And you must be the girl of the Northern night?” She pointed to the blonde and smiled. The joke didn’t quite work. The young woman pouted her lips even further into a duck face. Needle went gloomy too. “Pity about the power cut. I was hoping to hear some music.”
“You don’t need power to listen to music,” he replied and hummed, “A girl at midnight, a girl of the Northern night. A dead smile on her face, eyes full of terrible fright…”
His voice was tuneful; he knew how to modulate it. It was a pleasure to listen to him, but it was an even greater pleasure to look at him. Załuska stood there, not knowing what to say. She had an impression that by embracing the twenty-year-old girl he was effectively flirting with her. The young one noticed that too. And she reacted in a correct fashion – she encircled the man’s waist with her other hand. He’s mine, her eyes said, fuck off, you old hag.
“Has Mr Bławicki told you I was coming?” Załuska asked. She registered surprise on Needle’s face, but no sign of concern. “I’m not from the police,” she explained quickly. “But I need to talk to all of the staff and first and foremost to you. As you know, somebody wants to harm Mr Bławicki and my job is to find the motive and determine the features of the perpetrator. Mr Bławicki doesn’t think it’s an outsider.”
Needle laughed out loud.
“He thinks it’s me trying to scare him.” He pushed the girl away and kissed her on the forehead in a fatherly manner. “Klara, could you leave us alone, please?”
She left with hesitation. She looked back a few times and Needle blew her a kiss.
“Tell people not to come in. This won’t take long,” he instructed before she disappeared behind the door marked ‘Staff’.
It was obvious that Klara was head over heels in love with him, but as for him – not so much.
“Will you have something to drink?” He showed her an armchair and sat down on a sofa next to it. Sasha shook her head. “You don’t mind if I do, do you?” he announced, and then yelled: “Iza, bring me my gin.”
A moment later a plump brunette with a pretty face appeared from the darkness. Her neckline was so low you could see her cleavage. Iza Kozak scrutinised Sasha thoroughly and put bottles, ice bucket and two glasses in front of Needle. Sasha was curious how they managed to maintain a cold temperature without electricity.
“We have two powerful generators.” Needle said as if he could read her mind. He gestured at the woman. “Iza Kozak. The boss of all bosses. She knows this place inside out. She’s been here pretty much from day one.”
“Almost inside out,” Iza corrected him modestly.
The women shook hands. The manager wanted to leave but Needle stopped her.
“Take a seat.” He patted a place next to him and then addressed Załuska: “I have no secrets from her.”
“Let’s get down to business.” Needle whacked his thighs. “What do you need and what is it all about?”
Załuska briefly explained the situation. She told him about her commission and how she imagined their cooperation. She didn’t mention anything about the late night phone call or financial details.
“I’ll need to talk to everybody. Separately,” she stressed. “We can meet anywhere. I’m prepared to visit you at home. The more efficiently and faster we deal with it, the better.”
“But what are you after?” Iza interrupted alertly. “I don’t understand.”
She was matter-of-fact and inclined towards aggression. Sasha figured out straightaway that she was the one running this club. Without her, all alcohol would get drunk and money spent. Iza Kozak was good at her job.
Załuska shrugged, which Needle found very amusing. He lifted the bottle and checked again if she wouldn’t have a drink with him.
“I don’t quite understand either,” she admitted, staring hypnotically at the bottle. “My everyday job is creating profiles which are portraits of unknown offenders. I help the police, courts of law, sometimes private people or companies. In short – I can establish the characteristics of a person who committed an offence, I can figure out what age they are, what sex, and even, if there was a crime committed, where they live and work. I also find out the motive and suggest where to look for the person, if they’re in hiding. I won’t be able to say if it’s you or you who wants to kill Paweł Bławicki. I can only list the features of the suspect. The person commissioning the expertise needs to draw their own conclusions and decide who fits the description. The police name the suspect. I have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve accepted this kind of a commission.”
They were looking at her with slight surprise.
“You can find out so much from conversations?” Needle was sceptical.
“Having a victim helps immensely,” Sasha replied. “Injuries and a crime scene are a real mine of behavioural data.”
Iza picked up a napkin and started twisting it nervously.
“But so far there’s no dead body.” Needle laughed. He grabbed his drink and sprawled out on the sofa. “Perhaps we should just wait? What’s the point of straining yourself so much without a reason?”
Sasha didn’t reply. She wanted to end this conversation as quickly as possible. She had to leave before she found herself asking them for a double drink. Right now one glass was too much, but later a bucketful wouldn’t be enough.
Translated by Anna Hyde