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Stanisław Lem: Śledztwo (The Investigation)

This novel is nominally set in England, though it appears to be an England which the author had read about but never visited, with strange places and people. The story concerns a mystery which is baffling Scotland Yard. Bodies are moving around and then disappearing from morgues, without any explanation. Chief Inspector Sheppard puts Lieutenant Gregory on the case (note that the real Scotland Yard does not have lieutenants). Various people assist Gregory but the key one is the statistician, Sciss. Sciss works out, statistically, approximately where the next disappearance is going to be and police are sent to guard all morgues in the area. A corpse does indeed move at one morgue but the unfortunate police officer, apparently fleeing for his life, is struck by a car and remains unconscious till almost the end of the book.

Gregory investigates but cannot come up with any rational explanation, though his suspicions fall on Sciss. However, it is apparent that Lem is not interested in a conventional mystery where the brilliant policeman comes up with a brilliant solution. In this case, we are given a variety of possible solutions, all of which and none of which make sense. Is there something otherworldly going on here? Is it just a statistical probability that this would happen? Or was it an overnight food delivery driver who moved them when his mind was unbalanced? Lem is, of course, clearly pointing out that conventional logic – be it the Agatha Christie type of logic, Sciss’ statistical logic or even some strange scientific phenomenon – does not work here. The blurb on the back of my copy says the real solution lies beyond the mind, beyond this world. I do not think that to be the case. The point is that, under probability theory, there is a chance that all of the solutions could be correct and a chance that any individual one could be correct and that, with probability theory, we can never know, only surmise.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Wydawnictwo Literackie
First English translation 1974 by Seabury Press
Translated by Adele Mile