An author leafing through a newspaper comes across tantalising details of a murder so grisly that he becomes obsessed, and imagines the events into a novel. Or a murderer, so self-satisfied with the brilliance of his perfect crime, pens an account to pass off as fiction and enshrine it in literary history.
Where reality ends and fiction begins in the stomach-turning novel Amok is the central task before the jury in Poland’s trial of the decade. Four years after he published his bloody bestseller, Krystian Bala has found himself on trial for the same torture and murder that he detailed in his novel.
Amok, Mr Bala claims, was inspired by news reports of the murder of a Polish businessman, whose mutilated body was fished out of the Oder river in the town of Wroclaw, close to the German border in southwest Poland, in December 2000. Police identified the dead man as Dariusz J, the owner of a small advertising agency. His death had been a grim one. His body bore the marks of torture, his limbs were distended. His hands were bound and tied to a noose around his neck.
Initial inquiries showed that he was well liked, successful and solvent. With no motive or suspect, the police were stumped. The case was broadcast on Poland’s version of the BBC television programme Crimewatch but it produced no serious leads — only some strange e-mails sent from internet cafés in Indonesia and South Korea, describing the murder as “the perfect crime”.
Five years later, police received an anonymous call. They were told to take a look at the book Amok, published in 2003, three years after the killing. Chief Inspector Jacek Wroblewski was shocked by what he found in the pages. The book contained intimate details of the murder that could be known only to police — or the killer. Further investigations revealed that the victim was an acquaintance of Mr Bala’s estranged wife.
Mr Bala was arrested and, according to him, hooded, beaten and insulted during a day of interrogation. “They seemed to know the book by heart,” he told outraged supporters later. “They quoted pieces from it that they found offensive and asked me about even the smallest detail. The police were treating the book as if it was a literal autobiography rather than a piece of fiction.”
Mr Bala told police that he had collated the available details from press reports and imagined the missing parts, which happened to be the grisliest. Mr Wroblewski was not convinced, but after three days Mr Bala was released from Wroclaw jail when police, who denied illtreating the writer, conceded that the evidence was slim.
The mockery that the inspector suffered from the Polish press only increased his resolve. The first break for the police came when they discovered that Mr Bala, a highly experienced diver, was on a diving trip to South Korea and Indonesia at the time that the e-mails were sent. Then they discovered that he had sold a mobile phone four days after the body of Dariusz J was discovered. It was the same model that the victim was known to have owned, but that police had never found.
Mr Bala offered to take a lie-detector test to prove his innocence and passed. When the transcripts were read out in court, the judge was struck by the very long pauses taken by Mr Bala before answering, a technique that may allow a suspect to mask the physical signs of lying.
“My view is that Bala was using the breathing techniques that he had learnt as a diver,” the inspector told the court.
During the trial, which has now been adjourned, Mr Bala has managed to answer almost every nugget of evidence against him. The case, his lawyer says, is largely circumstantial — “like the plot of a novel”. Mr Bala’s former wife told the court that he was an obsessive, wanting to control her friendships even after their divorce.
Whether that will be enough to demonstrate that Mr Bala had the motive to commit murder, write a novel about it and then tip off the police remains to be seen. The literary riddle will probably outlive the courtroom judgment.
Art and life
— When Simon Mann was seized in 2004 by Zimbabwean security forces, with a planeload of companions and equipment, to face charges of plotting to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s Government, similarities to Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel The Dogs of War were unmistakable
— Errol Trzebinski’s son, Tonio, was murdered in 2001 in precisely the way she describes a murder in her book The Life and Death of Lord Erroll. Ms Trzebinski believes her son’s killers were trying to warn her to stop investigating the life of Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll, who is the subject of her book; she believes he was killed in the 1940s by British intelligence services
Stanley Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from British cinemas in the early 1970s after a series of alleged copycat crimes. One, the murder of an aged tramp, almost matched a scene in the film