Interview with Mariusz Czubaj, author of 21:37
Mariusz Czubaj is a cultural anthropologist and a bestselling author in Poland. His first crime novel featuring profiler Rudolf Heinz, 21:37 (21:37, 2008), won the High Calibre Award for the Best Polish Crime Novel in 2009. In 2011 he published the second book on Rudolf Heinz, Kołysanka dla mordercy (‘Lullaby for a Murderer’), and the third, Zanim znowu zabiję (‘Before I Kill Again’), was released in 2012. 21:37 is Czubaj’s first novel published in English. The novel was translated by Anna Hyde.
Why did you start writing crime fiction?
I’m simply a great fan of crime fiction. I read it with great love. Not only that, as a writer I think it is a bloody responsibility for any crime author to read crime fiction for a simple reason – it is a form of training. I look how others write, sometimes I think to myself, man, this is really good but sometimes, it was a great beginning but the ending was so-so, perhaps I would have done it better. Generally, I think if somebody writes crime fiction – but also a similar thing can be said about people writing in other genres like fantasy or horror – it is impossible for me not to read crime fiction, not to have an emotional attitude towards it. The fact I have my beloved crime authors, Mankell, Rankin, who belong to my private top of the top, these are those emotions that make me write crime fiction and to some extent challenge these emotions in myself.
Is profiler Rudolf Heinz a real person?
Of course researching my own novels I meet with policemen, sometimes I have the feeling that I am the safest person in town because I am surrounded by these people or, the other way round, I might be the most dangerous person. [laughs] Sometimes I meet with the person on whom I based Heinz – these are very special meetings because every single time he offers me a cigarette I have a feeling he’s doing his own private investigation and is testing me, he’s trying to get something out of me, another twisted story, and it is not me trying to get a story out of him which I could transform and use in my fiction. I think in a way what the police do in creating a profile of a person is similar to what we do as writers in novels. We also create a character and his or her understanding of the world. In this regard policemen and writers are similar, they create in reality whereas I create in my imagination.
Why did you decide to write 21:37?
I had two inspirations. The first one was a certain policeman in Katowice who is a profiler and in some way became the basis for Rudolf Heinz. I’d like to add that in Poland there are only a few people who work as profilers so it is very different than in the US or the UK and perhaps some other countries. Secondly, I thought about creating a series of crime books which I called ‘Polish psycho’ and I think the reference is quite clear. Show me your crime, show me the crimes committed in your country and I will tell you in what society you live. To me crime is a prism through which we can observe society, and this is what really excites me in crime fiction.
You are a cultural anthropologist. How does it help you in your writing?
The great American-Canadian crime author Ross Mcdonald wrote an essay about his protagonist Lew Archer, where he said that a detective is something like a cultural anthropologist. In order to solve a case – but also to explain the motives of human actions, why in some cultures we do what we do – we face a riddle. In order to solve the riddle we need to go on the ground, we need to do research. Sometimes this research on the ground equals very simple observations, for example, all female bartenders in a seaside resort open beer cans using a knife, a fork, a spoon or any other sharp objects for a very simple reason, they all have false nails. And this is a picture that chisels its way into the memory, which says something about this community, which is reliable and we can easily use such detail in a novel in such a way that the reader will think: ‘great, this bloke was there, he saw that, what he writes is credible.’ And this is what I try to do. Doing research on the ground allows me to find those pictures which I can later use in my novels.
Mariusz Czubaj’s Top Ten Crime Novels.