It’s been three years since Zofia Turbotyńska solved her first case (see Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing). Since then, Zofia has settled back into domestic life. She still keeps up appearances between the great and the good of Kraków and trying to get her absent-minded professor of a husband a promotion at the university. That case is a real feather in Zofia’s cap, one that she’s not afraid to point out whenever relevant. Given her willingness to talk about her skills as a detective, it’s no surprise that she metaphorically elbows police and investigators out of the way when one of her maids is discovered dead at the beginning of Maryla Szymiczkowa’s* Karolina and the Torn Curtain. Antonia Lloyd-Jones does a beautiful job of translating this new entry in the series.
Karolina Szulc only recently handed in her notice at Peacock House when Zofia receives news that she has been found stabbed to death in an unsavory neighborhood. As soon as she learns about the murder, Zofia and her senior maid, the faithful Franciszka, leap into action. Franciszka searches Karolina’s old room while Zofia starts calling in markers at the local police station. It isn’t long before Zofia starts to put the pieces together—especially when the pair uncover information about a handsome man who made Karolina promises that were too good to be true.
The arc of a mystery plot usually follows a slow upward trajectory that starts to leap the closer we get to the big conclusion. The plot of Karolina and the Torn Curtain races at the beginning, before slowing down after an apparent suspect is cornered and shot by police. Zofia has doubts that grow the more she thinks about them. While the police are satisfied that they got the right guy, Zofia continues to ask questions. These questions take her into dangerous territory; she might be on the tracks of a large criminal conspiracy.
Early in Karolina and the Torn Curtain, Zofia has a brief discussion with a Mrs. Bujwid, a reformer who wants to help women and girls get an education. Zofia is initially annoyed by Mrs. Bujwid. She thinks the woman is reaching beyond her station and social status is very important to Zofia. (The third-person narrator frequently points this snobbery out for comic effect.) That conversation makes Zofia—and us, as readers—start to pay a lot more attention to the conversations of the men around her. These men are usually colleagues of her professor husband, so their discussions often include ludicrous “reasons” why women shouldn’t have more rights or more education. Zofia’s growing awareness of the discrimination around her and her increasing knowledge of the world of prostitution and trafficking in Kraków affect her. She becomes much less likely to assume that the authorities and her social betters have everything under control as the façade fades away.
Like Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, Karolina and the Torn Curtain offers a vivid look into life at the end of the nineteenth century in Kraków. Zofia’s powers of observation take in faces, clothing, sounds, and smells as she whisks back and forth across the city, from posh addresses to neighborhoods well-bred women shouldn’t even know about. This book is historical fiction at its best.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.
*Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński.