After moving from the capital to a small town in south-eastern Poland, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki finds himself investigating a murder that looks like a monstrous pastiche of traditional Jewish animal slaughter. Beneath the town's picturesque surface there are concealed threads that bind the inhabitants together, and concealed currents that flow through the populace. Behind a curtain in the cathedral there is an old painting that depicts Jews slaughtering Christian babies for their blood.

Prosecutor Szacki is fictional, as are the murders. The painting is real. Its presence is noted in a passing reference on the Sandomierz town website to “Jewish ritual murder” - though the phrase does not appear in the English and German versions of the page. (It's there in the Italian one, perhaps betraying an assumption that Catholics in general will acquiesce in the blood libel.)* This book is both a crime novel and a grim reflection on the agony, the shame and the rage that has been provoked by the controversies of recent years about how Poles treated their Jewish neighbours, and how they remember them. More broadly, it reflects upon imbalances that are found in many countries between modern metropolitan society and the resentfully defended traditions of the provinces.

Miłoszewski depicts how the locals react as the demons of the past are conjured up. A priest sees the painting as a protest against extremism – but also thinks that it says something about abortion, and possible Jewish involvement in what to the Catholic Church is an abominable crime. A cathedral guide tries to persuade a tour party that a Jewish cult might have committed ritual murder, which he insists was a historical fact. These remarks are lightly adapted from material gathered by Warsaw University anthropologists who interviewed Sandomierz residents in 2005. The degree of reason and sympathy in the novelized vox pops is limited, but it's considerably higher than in the researchers' compiled transcripts. Their document is more disturbing than Miłoszewski's drama.

Szacki regards the locals' noxious imaginings with a metropolitan eye trained in the rational evaluation of evidence. Yet he finds himself being drawn into their community - even coming to see more to women than the crude physical evaluations with which the reader is relentlessly taxed. And that's the way to go. The more that the city and the provinces subvert the distinction between 'us' and 'them', instead of turning their backs on each other with a sneer and a shudder, the less people in the tracts far from the centre will cling to their libellous myths about others.

*The foreign-language versions of the site have since been removed.