Book review: Blood Roses, by Douglas Jackson

Telling the story of a Polish detective who must pretend to work with the Nazis during the occupation in order to aid the Resistance, Douglas Jackson’s new novel is admirably plotted and beautifully put together, writes Allan Massie

Douglas Jackson is best known as a novelist of the late Roman Empire, author of the nine book series collectively titled “The Hero of Rome”. Embarking on a projected four-novel series, set in Poland in the years of the Nazi occupation, Blood Roses being the first, may seem a surprising shift. It becomes immediately less so when you read that it is written in memory of a Polish uncle who served in the 1st Polish Armoured Division and was decorated for bravery.

The novel begins with the Germans about to occupy Warsaw. Its hero, Jan Kalisz, a detective policeman, married with one son, is in hospital, war-wounded. Before being discharged he has a visitor who orders him not to join the embryonic Resistance. Instead, he must serve it by being attached to the Germans; they will need Polish police to work with them. Such was the case in every country occupied by the Nazis and would doubtless have been so in Britain also if we had been invaded. Occupying forces always need collaborators. Kalisz can best serve his country by seeming to be a traitor. He must not tell anyone, not even his wife, why he is collaborating with the Nazis. Apart from is ability and experience, he has one special qualification for the part he must play. He has a German grandparent, now dead, and speaks fluent German; few Nazis speak Polish.

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It is a difficult role and often a humiliating one. The Nazis treat the Polish police with contempt and often brutality. His wife, though loving and loyal, disapproves. Hopes that the occupation may be short-lived are dashed next year by the German victory in the west and the fall of France. Things will get a lot worse in Poland before there is any hope of liberation. There is not much the early Resistance movement can do.

Kalisz, however, wins the approval – qualified approval – of the Nazi chief he has to serve, though most of his German colleagues distrust, despise or loathe him. He soon learns he is playing a long game and one that even his wife thinks shameful.

You may wonder where the story is going, whether indeed it can go anywhere credibly. There is however another strand to the novel, real police work for Kalisz, work to be performed with great difficulty. There is a serial killer at work in Warsaw. We know him first only as “The Artist”, a painter whose work has not brought success. His crimes are horrible. He kills teenage girls, disembowels them and creates a sort of shrine with their entrails. At first the Nazi police, Jan’s superiors, are indifferent. He works alone without support. Then The Artist’s victim is a German, daughter of a senior Nazi. So the case becomes important. Kalisz has a leading role in the investigation, since his superiors, even those who loathe him, need his local knowledge and ability to question witnesses.

The plot thickens beautifully. Kalisz first suspects, then is sure, that the artist-killer is a German, not only a German but a senior officer, a member of the SS. There is one obvious suspect – for the reader at least – though this person is one of the few Nazis who seems to have some humanity and is troubled by the brutality of the occupation. The reader may be convinced that this s indeed The Artist. But is it a red herring? Meanwhile the occupation becomes still more repressive; there are more atrocities. Can Kalisz solve the crimes, maintain his links with the Resistance, confront Polish criminals who may have knowledge of the murders, and save his marriage and his teenage son?

Jackson has written an utterly compelling novel, one in which he convincingly portrays the fear and loathing of the Polish predicament, Kalisz’s private dilemma mirroring his country’s, and in which the horror of the occupation is skillfully intertwined with the horror of what are essentially ordinary and disgusting crimes. In short, he has written a novel which contrives to be both a public and private story, admirably plotted and beautifully put together. It is a remarkable piece of work, a fine piece of craftsmanship. I look forward eagerly to the next installment.

Blood Roses, by Douglas Jackson, Canelo, £16.99