Thursday, March 4, 2021

Review: Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa

Poland is not often the country we in the US think of when we think of European countries. But it has a rich and varied history, including being partitioned by Russia, Austria, and Germany (Prussia) from 1795-1918, wiping its very existence off the map. In fact, Cracow in 1893 was very diverse in population and complicated politically and religiously, at least in part because of this partition. The authors behind the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa have written a Golden Age inspired mystery set in this very complex time and place in Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, the first in a new series.

Zofia Turbotynska is a professor's wife. She's a busybody, a gossip, and a raging snob. And she has nothing better to do with her time than to push her unambitious husband's career forward, ingratiate herself as high up in society as she can, and hire and fire maids. She decides that she should run a charity raffle, intending to ask the nuns at the local church run retirement home for contributions from their residents and to get a countess at the home to head up the effort with her in order to give the raffle benefitting scrofulous children the social cachet it needs. But when she arrives at Helcel House to propose her plan, things are all aflutter, a resident having gone missing. Curious and intrigued, Zofia is the driving force behind finding Mrs. Mohr's body but when the little old woman's death is ruled natural causes, Zofia does not agree. And when a second resident is discovered murdered in her bed, Zofia jumps into an unofficial investigation with both feet, pursuing it personally as well as with the help of her cook Franciszka and of her wide net of social contacts giving her entre into places she should never be allowed.

Zofia is not an entirely likeable character and that, combined with the slow pace of the novel, makes it hard to get fully engaged with the story. The mystery of whodunit itself is quite complex and convoluted although Zofia's strong determination, she's really a force of nature, leaves no doubt that she will be able to collect all the information she needs to prove her case dramatically in an unveiling scene worthy of the greats. Where this novel really shines is not so much the mystery though as in its examination of class in nineteenth century Cracow, the look into the political climate of the time and its recent, bloody past, the confounding complexities of proper etiquette and society, and the rich and detailed historical setting itself. Zofia is smart and deductive and always (irritatingly) convinced of her own superiority. Her keeping her sleuthing from her dear husband Ignacy is rather entertaining but humor at his expense helps make Zofia just that slightest bit more endurable. Even the other characters all seem to find her to be a pill. Zofia's character and the byzantine twists and turns of the mystery (rarely shared with the reader until Zofia's grand reveal in the end) keep this from being the unreserved pick that the fascinating historical situation of Cracow would have made it and I doubt I'll pick up any more in the series but it was a decent enough read.

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