From the East End of London to Poland
By J. F. Penn
Anya Lipska is the critically acclaimed author of the Kiszka & Kershaw crime thriller series, set in the underworld of London’s Polish community. Her latest book is A DEVIL UNDER THE SKIN.
So who are Kiszka and Kershaw and what can we expect from the books?
My main character, Janusz Kiszka, was born in Poland but came over to London in the ’80s, when Poland was still under communism. Older readers may recall the Solidarity years when Poles were fighting for their freedom. He was caught up in all that and had some terrible experiences so he came to London, like many did, in the ’80s.
To begin with, Janusz did various jobs, worked in the building trade and did other casual work. Eventually he became a kind of private eye/tough guy/fixer, sorting things out for the Polish community in London.
In 2004 we got quite a big influx of Poles into the UK, when Poland joined the EU. Janusz has an ambivalent attitude to this new influx. On the one hand, he absolutely loves the fact that he can buy kielbasa, Polish sausage, and all of his favorite treats in the Polski shops that are popping up on every street corner in the East End. On the other hand, he used to be an exotic rarity, and now he’s just one of the crowd, another immigrant. He finds that a bit difficult to cope with.
Natalie Kershaw is my second character. I thought it was important to have a British character through which we could view the Polish, the slight strangeness to the UK audience of Poles, what they’re about, and this different culture and history. She’s a sharp-elbowed, very ambitious, young, female detective who’s a born-and-bred East Ender, a Cockney. The whole series really is about their shifting relationship. When she first comes up against Janusz, he is a suspect in a murder case, and she thinks “typical dodgy Eastern European, he’s probably a gangster”. But then she goes to his flat in Highbury, he bought it in a nice part of London when London was cheap, way back. And he’s cooking jam and she just doesn’t get it, because he’s actually an educated guy, even though he’s a big rough, tough, brick-outhouse-looking guy, he’s also got this very sensitive side.
The books are fast-paced thrillers, with a lot of humor in which people learn a bit about the Polish community in London. Janusz and Kershaw come into contact with each other during various investigations, sometimes he’s asking for her help, and sometimes she needs his help with an investigation that might have something to do with the Polish community or the wider Eastern European community in the East End of London. They have a growing relationship, essentially antagonists with an uneasy alliance. By book three, they are becoming friends.
Tell about A DEVIL UNDER THE SKIN.
It is book three in the series, finding Janusz Kiszka at a very important time in his life. He’s a guy in his 40s, with an ex-wife and a kid back in Poland. It was a disastrous marriage, although he stays in touch with his kid and looks after him, of course, because he’s an honourable man. But his main relationship in the UK has been with a married Polish woman called Kasia who is a devout Catholic but has finally agreed to leave her husband in opposition to the advice from her priest and despite her reservations. Janusz has lived on his own for 20 years so he’s a little bit freaked out about this. His best mate Oscar, who’s sort of his comedy sidekick, takes the mick out of him about what it’s going to be like.
Janusz is a little bit uncertain, but broadly speaking, he’s pretty excited to be starting again. Then a terrible disaster strikes. Kasia goes missing. Janusz becomes convinced that her ne’er-do-well Cockney husband has kidnapped her–because he too has disappeared.
As he begins to investigate, all is not quite what it seems. There’s a lot more going on and they get entangled with East End gangsters and gangsters of another extraction that I won’t give away. Soon enough there are bodies all over the place.
Janusz asks for help from his almost-mate, Natalie Kershaw, to try and help find his girlfriend because she has the resources as a cop. She really shouldn’t be doing it, she’s using the police computer when she shouldn’t be, but she’s trying to help him out.
You’re not Polish, so why write about the Polish community?
I live in East London, which is a great place but also very gritty and there’s a lot going on here, a lot of crime. But there are lots of detective thrillers set in London and I wanted to do something different. Then I realized that the answer was staring me in the face. My husband is Polish, was born over there and came over here in the ’80s, during the Solidarity years when Poland was Communist.
So I had a great “in” to the history and culture and I thought that would be a great idea for a character, someone who’s come here with an awful lot of baggage, whose past casts this giant shadow. Someone with a passionate connection to justice yet also anti-authoritarian, because you don’t trust the cops in a Communist state.
It was also a happy coincidence that Poles started coming to London in quite big numbers. Everyone knows a Pole now, whether it’s just as a builder or their kids might go to school with Poles. It’s become part of the fabric of cities in the UK. I also love to read books where I learn something about something I didn’t know and I think many readers share that with me, so this seemed like a great opportunity. People might want to know about the Poles that they’re working and shopping alongside. You know, what’s it all about? What’s their history, what’s their culture?
What are some of the places in Poland that come up in the story that people might like to hear about?
Although the books are set in London, Janusz does, from time to time, have to go back to Poland to pursue various lines of investigation. So I had the chance to go on holiday there as well, which has been great. My husband comes too as my translator.
Warsaw is the capital city, but Kraków’s the historical city and a very beautiful place. Wawel Castle is very pretty but becoming quite touristy now with visitors from all over Europe. The great thing about Poland is that wherever you go, there’s extraordinary history. So in Kraków, it’s an older history perhaps, with the castle and beautiful Hapsburgian architecture. Reminders of the past are always close at hand.
Just outside Kraków there’s a place called Nowa Huta. It was a giant new town that the Soviets built to house 100,000 steel workers to serve the V. I. Lenin Steelworks. That’s quite a spooky place. It’s socialist realist architecture, a kind of vision of their heaven, but a lot of people’s hell.
Perhaps my favourite place in Poland is Gdańsk, which is the Baltic seaport on a lovely river leading out to the sea. It has a great mixture of beautiful ancient history there and the Hanseatic architecture which you see all down the coast, right down to Amsterdam; beautiful curvy tops to the buildings, also medieval architecture and a fabulous cathedral. Then you come across the shipyard gates, which have been preserved, and that’s where the Gdańsk shipyard strikers, led by Lech Wałęsa, began the uprising against Communism from the late ’70s up until 1989 when they won democracy. There’s an absolutely terrific museum there as well, which covers the Communist past and the impact of Communism on Poland very well. So I love how the place combines the old and the new.
I think many people associate words like “Communism” and “Iron Curtain” and “Eastern Europe” with the color gray. But you’re describing something a lot more colorful.
When I went to Gdańsk the first time with my husband, I asked him, “Well, look, you know, you are Janusz, you’re that age. What’s it like coming back here?” And he said exactly that. He said, “What I remember is a complete lack of color. The only color you saw in the streets was occasionally outside of an official building. The red flag of Communism or the Polish flag at the time.” And he says now that it’s absolutely filled with colour because it’s like every other Western European city. Of course that comes with a downside, and when Janusz goes back to Poland, he bemoans the fact that his generation, and generations before his fought for freedom, and now young people are interested in McDonald’s and Ikea and that kind of materialism. But that’s freedom.
There’s a lot of negative press about immigration these days. How do you cover this hot button topic in your books?
I hesitate about generalizing. I mean, obviously I can’t be a mouthpiece for Polish people. I’m not even Polish! But I think that there is an increasingly hostile attitude to immigrants, migrants in general in this country, and that’s a shame to see. I have heard some Polish friends say that they feel less welcome here than they did originally. I’ve also heard some of them say that, on the other hand, they can understand why some people are unhappy to compete with lower-priced Polish tradesmen.
But when it comes to prejudice and xenophobia, the most important thing is to understand other people. It sounds trite, but it is absolutely true. Lots of people who may dismiss Eastern Europeans as they’re like this or like that, I hope that in some small way, when they read the books, they get a bit more of a grip of what Poland’s like. It’s not just “another Eastern European country that’s emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.” This is a country that used to be at the heart of Europe, alongside France and Germany. And I hope that by understanding all that and with just a little knowledge of the culture, of what they eat, what they like to do at Christmas, that things become a bit less scary.
What is your favorite Polish food?
Probably bigos, which is the national dish of Poland. It might sound a bit horrible to non-Poles because it does feature quite a lot of sauerkraut, and I’m not generally a fan of sauerkraut. But it’s all cooked down in an amazing stew with lots of game and pork ribs and flavourings and it’s absolutely delicious.
Obviously Poland is one theme, but what are the other themes that come up in your writing?
I like the idea of outsiders and writing from the outsider’s point of view. All writers have to do this, put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and it’s more rich, more liberating to do that. Even Natalie, who’s a Londoner, is a bit of an outsider in a man’s world. It’s only quite recently that women have been rising up the ranks as police detectives. So she, particularly early in her career, has had some struggles with that.
I guess the other thing, and this is perhaps why I was drawn to having a Polish hero, is that I like exploring ideas of honor. What it is to be an honourable person. Janusz is a mixture. He’s an educated man, he’s quite a sensitive soul in many ways, he likes to cook, but on the other hand, he’s quite happy to dish out some judicious violence to the bad guys. So he has a code of honour, a very strong one, a distinctive one, and I often have him come up against moral dilemmas where he has a choice between doing the right thing and doing the comfortable thing. That’s particularly true in the third book where he has a really, really tough dilemma at the end.
You have an interesting day job as a TV producer. How does your work in TV influence your writing, and vice versa?
I was a journalist first and then I became a TV director and producer and now I’m still a TV producer part-time. The two things that have spilled over into the writing are first and foremost, the journalism and the research. I’m very inspired by real world events and by the research that I do. I am genuinely inspired by all those books about Poland and I find that it’s a rich source of ideas and twists and turns in the story. So that’s one way.
And the other thing is that lots of people have said, very kindly, that they think the books are very visual and cinematic. And I think that is a result of me having been a director. Or maybe I was a director because I’ve always had a very strong visual sense. I always start my books, my scenes, my chapters, everything, by seeing it. Then I do the hard work of getting it down. But I’m always really keen to choose places that I can strongly visualize, so whether it’s Janusz beating up some guy on a snowy night time airport on the edge of eastern Poland, or being chased through the Greenwich foot tunnel under the Thames, I love to find evocative, visual settings. Happily, the BBC has optioned the series as a possible drama, so who knows, fingers crossed.
What other thriller authors and books do you love to read? What are you reading now?
There are so many that it’s really hard to boil them down. The last thing I read which was absolutely fantastic and slightly left field, was a book called The Bees, by Laline Paull. It’s set in a hive of bees and the heroine is a worker bee. It sounds just extraordinary, but somehow she pulls it off. It’s basically a thriller, but with all the rules and the science of how bees operate, but with, obviously, a newly imagined inner life. It’s absolutely brilliant, a really gripping thriller and one of those books where I learned something about bees and I now know the right plants to put in my garden to encourage the bee population.
In the UK, the names that come to mind would be Ian Rankin, who is my absolute hero, and Val McDermid. I also read quite a lot of European crime fiction. I like French crime fiction, I like Fred Vargas, who is actually female, and Pierre Lemaitre, who won the international book of the year a couple of years ago with a fantastic book called Alex. And I can’t not mention, of course, the Polish writer Zygmunt Miłoszewski. Under Communism, they didn’t have crime fiction in Poland. They had enough going on, but now it’s a democratic society, so they’re getting a bit more like the rest of Western Europe. Crime fiction is a really burgeoning genre, and Zygmunt Miłoszewski is probably one of the top guys.
We have a lot of crime fiction in the UK but we also have one of the safest countries with very little violence. Do you think that’s why crime fiction is now emerging in Poland? As soon as your country becomes more settled, you start writing violent things?
I definitely think that crime fiction is a product of a very settled society. People are so keen to read crime fiction because it’s to do with the bogey man, essentially. Going right back to when we sat around fires in the mouths of caves and told each other stories about the sabre-toothed tiger and the storms and the spirits and the devils that were out there. We want to dramatize the threats, and then overcome them in some way or find some resolution. That’s what happens in crime fiction. We still have these fears but our fears are now just different. There are very few things to fear in a modern, developed society, but there’s something in us there that fears the lights going off at night. When you’re home, it’s not a sabre-toothed tiger anymore but it might be a serial killer knocking at your door. There’s something about us that still has that atavistic fear of the bogey man, of the outside, and I think that crime fiction, in all its forms, is a way of coming to terms with that.
Where can people find you and your books online?
On my website, there’s all the links and information about me there. The books in the UK are available through Amazon and all the other e-outlets, and in the shops at Waterstone’s, and various independents. In America, at the moment, it’s only Amazon.com.
J. F. Penn is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of thrillers with a supernatural edge. Oxford educated, British born, she has traveled the world in her study of religion and psychology. She brings these obsessions as well as a love for thrillers and an interest in the supernatural to her writing. Her fast-paced ARKANE thrillers weave together historical artifacts, global locations, a kick-ass protagonist and a hint of the supernatural.
To learn more, please visit her website.