Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (Polish 2015, English 2019)
When I first heard of a historical crime fiction set in Krakow, I was immediately intrigued. It’s not that often that Polish literature translated to English (or French) gives us some entertaining mysteries. At least, I haven’t heard of many. So I immediately added the book to my wishlist… and did nothing. Until Mr. Smithereens took the matter in his own hands (or rather my wishlist) and bought it for me as a Christmas present.
As the novel starts, Zofia Turbotinska is annoyed… and annoying. She’s the wife of a university professor (God forbid if you should forget it or state the wrong title) in 1893 Krakow. Not a very brilliant professor, to Zofia’s regret, but rather a shy little man who enjoys his dinners on time next to a beautiful wife in a beautiful home. And who will do anything to keep her happy, in the limits of what he deems proper for a woman. Zofia has already maneuvered (without him being aware) to get him the coveted professor title, but she wants more. And she’s bored.
Because she’s bored, she’s insufferable with her maids, and she tries to find any pretext to approach aristocratic ladies, including visiting some of them in a Catholic retirement home. When she gets there, an old wealthy widow has disappeared, found dead a few days later in an attic. While the authorities are quick to dismiss this death as due to old age, Zofia’s interest is awaken. She sees herself a detective as in the novels she enjoys reading and she pesters everyone around to answer all of her questions.
It’s a mystery full of humor, led by a main character who is a force of nature no one can resist. Zofia takes a little time to get used to, because she really comes off as an unpleasant snob at first. Fortunately, we get to understand the sources of her frustration and we get to see more than just a social climber and a name dropper. And Zofia Turbotinska is so much more interesting to follow when she has a mystery to solve than when she has nothing to do! I guess that might turn off some readers. The story itself is interesting and full of twists, although pacing was a bit sluggish in the middle. I kept wanting to understand more about the sociopolitical situation of Krakow at that period, because there are many allusions to historical events and real famous Polish people, but I didn’t find the chance and it didn’t hinder my reading.
This book obviously sets the stage for a series: I would be happy to read Zofia’s next adventures, as I guess the weaknesses of this first volume can easily be mended in the next ones.
Another tidbit of information is that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pen name of two writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski, who are both openly gay and in fact married to each other. I was a bit surprised to see it mentioned on the back cover of the book (after all, the marital status of a writer has never been a criteria for good literature), but seeing how gay rights are routinely trampled over in Poland, I’m rather glad to support these writers by reading their book… and the next?