This confident, well-plotted debut novel is a welcome treat. It is set in the east of London in the unappealing regions of Leytonstone and Stratford, areas currently undergoing “regeneration” in the run up to the 2012 Olympics, and as far as you can get from the London of Buckingham Palace and Lord’s cricket ground.
There has been a thriving Polish community in England since World War 2, but the country’s entry into the EU sparked a huge influx of mainly young people eager to take on work as builders or cleaners in order to make some money for their families at home. Janusz Kiszka is one such Pole. He’s lived in London for more than 20 years, making ends meet in an assortment of jobs and deals, to the extent that he can live in the Highbury Fields flat he first rented as a slum when he arrived in the country, now worth more than £1 million. Janusz is an attractive character, a rough diamond who has made, and continues to make, mistakes, but who has a basic integrity. He has a degree in physics and chemistry from the prestigious Jagiellonian University, but like many of his compatriots escaped the country in the wake of the Solidarity protests that ended communist rule.
Janusz is asked by the elderly owner of the Restaurant Polka to find Weronika, an innocent 19-year-old girl who was working there as a waitress but who has disappeared without trace. Although he thinks the most likely explanation is that the girl has run off with a boyfriend or has discovered more lucrative employment in Soho’s strip clubs (in common with other young women, not least Janusz’s on-off girlfriend Kasia), Janusz agrees to help as he needs the money offered.
In parallel with Janusz’s story is that of DC Natalie Kershaw, a native east Londoner but a graduate entrant to the police force and hence subject to constant ribaldry and heckling from her male colleagues. She is told to attend a body that has been found in the river which turns out to be that of a teenage girl who must have been very beautiful. Natalie finds enough suspicious features about the death to want to pursue an investigation, but she has to be very careful about handling her Sergeant so that he’ll allow her to work on the case, and will sign the budget for the necessary forensics.
Soon, Natalie unearths a Polish connection, and after another body is found in a nearby hotel, begins to work out what she thinks might have happened and who was responsible. In alternating chapters, Janusz pursues his enquiries, which take him to Poland and to the legacy of the traumatic events of the 1980s. It isn’t until about half way through the book that the two characters meet: Natalie tries to get Janusz to help her via his links to the Polish community but he is more interested in using what he can find out to further his own investigations.
As well as the strong (thankfully, not predictable) plot, what makes this book work well is its rounded, authentic depiction of the Polish community. Individuals come to life, such as Oskar, Janusz’s genially irreverent and somewhat gullible friend, but also the minor characters are well-depicted. Yet the bigger picture is also what makes the book more than a simple crime story – the values of the Poles versus the English, how English and Polish societies have changed over 25 years, and ultimately the shady past of those involved in regime change in Poland.
Natalie is a tough yet likeable character as she juggles her ambitions to be a good detective with her need to “keep in” with her mostly unpleasant male colleagues. She makes determined progress in her investigation to identify the drowned woman and to find out who killed both victims, due to solid, detailed, police work. But the reader can see that both she and Janusz need each other to complete the picture that they are both only seeing partially. The question is whether they will come to realise this themselves before it is too late.
Although there are one or two weak points which I won’t dwell on here as they don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of reading the novel, I highly recommend this book as engagingly written with good characterisation; having a great sense of location and atmosphere; with a brisk pace driven by the impetus of the upcoming elections in Poland; and with that touch of emotional resonance that marks out a novel as being above standard fare.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is self-published in the UK, but will be published in Germany by Goldmann (Random House) later this year. If it hasn’t yet been snapped up by a UK publisher, it certainly deserves to be.
I purchased the Kindle edition of this book.
The author has written a guest post at It’s a Crime! (on the dangers of Polish Christmas ;-)).
Author’s website, with various reviews and more information about the novel.