Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, by Maryla Szymiczkowa

After reading two weighty books on the experiences of women in Korea and Japan, I desperately needed something that was more like my usual fare. Thankfully, my hold on Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, by Maryla Szymiczkowa*, came in. This novel—perfectly and fluidly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones—whisked me away to Kraków in 1893. Mrs. Zofia Turbotyńska is a status conscious upper class woman who busies herself with organizing charities and cultivating relationships with the city’s aristocracy. I should have been annoyed at Zofia’s social climbing, but I couldn’t. I loved watching her solve a series of crimes that no one else could and wake up to the knowledge that there’s more to life than trying to reach the top of the social heap.

One quick note: If you’re not familiar with the Polish language, I recommend watching a quick video on Polish pronunciation like this one. It really helped me get through all the Polish names because I don’t know what to do with all those consonant clusters.

As the book opens, Zofia accompanies her much put-upon cook to Helcel House, a home for the elderly run by nuns. The cook is there to visit a relative. Zofia is there to trade on her acquaintance with Sister Alojza to get free prizes for a raffle for scrofulous children. Zofia finds Helcel in turmoil, which Zofia immediately starts to quell. Mrs. Mohr, one of the wealthy inhabitants of Helcel, has gone missing—which is strange because Mrs. Mohr has been bedridden for most of the time she’s been at Helcel. Mrs. Mohr is later found dead in the attic, with bright pink cheeks that belie the coroner’s finding of hypothermia. Zofia’s insistence on an investigation is immediately dismissed by the detective in charge of the case. Everyone is satisfied with how quickly things were wrapped up, but then another resident is found dead and yet another goes missing.

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing is not exactly a fair-play detective story. Zofia sometimes has sudden epiphanies that are only explained later, but I wasn’t bothered for three reasons. First, I was having such a good time in the Kraków of 1893, a time and place I’ve never visited in fiction before. This novel beautifully captures the lost world of Austro-Hungarian Poland, with its elaborate social rituals and more aristocracy than Burke’s Peerage. I soaked up all the historical details that are judiciously sprinkled through the book. Second, Zofia always explains her epiphanies. These epiphanies are usually the result of Zofia’s powers of observation and her ability to piece together motives from the backstories she winkles out of people.

The third reason I didn’t mind Zofia’s sudden-idea-then-explain-later improvised process was the way this book is written. The prose is full of witty little sentences that would take the mickey out of Zofia if she could hear them. I love the narrative voice of this novel. Here’s an example from the beginning of chapter VIII of the kindle edition:

On Saturday, just before noon, a green hat with a wide brim and a peacock feather secured by a gold-plated brooch cautiously emerged from the gateway of a house on St. John’s Street. First the hat hesitated, as if wondering if it was going to rain—inevitably changing the streets of Cracow into muddy channels with streams of dirty water racing down them—and finally set off ahead. It passed the stone peacock adorning the facade of the house, then crossed the little bridge between the Piarist Monastery and the Czartoryski Palace, continually under repair. At St. Florian’s Gate it turned right, and narrowly dodged a fast-moving carriage. The peacock feather quivered angrily, then headed in a straight line toward the towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. It passed the house where, as all of Cracow knew, for years on end Mrs. Matejko had been having terrible rows with her famous artist husband, and a little farther on the house where Mrs. Dutkiewicz had not had any rows with her husband for the past two years, since he had been laid to rest in Rakowicki Cemetery. Past the junction with St. Thomas’s Street, at house number ten, the hat abruptly stopped and tilted.

This description of Zofia walking through the city through the perspective of her hat delighted me so much that I couldn’t get the grin off my face for pages.

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing is a highly original historical mystery, and Zofia steals the show. She’s such a great character! I loved the setting and the way that the authors brought it back to full-color life. I look forward to more mysteries featuring the irrepressible Mrs. Zofia Turbotyńska.

Warsaw in the 1890s (Image via Monovisions)

* Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński.

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