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Tuesday 16 April 2019

‘Mrs Mohr Goes Missing’ by Maryla Szymiczkowa

Published by Point Blank,
28 March 2019.
ISBN: 978-1-78607-343-7 (HB)

Cracow is now in Poland, but in 1893, when this novel is set, was in the Austro-Hungarian empire and very much the centre of Polish culture with a rigid class structure, aristocracy at the top, professionals and academics below, and below them servants, tradespeople and peasants.

As the wife of an academic Zofia Turbotynska has some standing but in her view not enough. One way in which ladies could increase their social prestige is through charitable works, and Zofia’s choice is Helfel House, a retirement home for elderly ladies run by nuns. Class distinctions are as rigidly maintained in Helfel House as they are elsewhere and no doubt the ladies are grateful to Zofia when, wearing one or other of her elaborate befeathered hats, she pays them a visit, accompanied by her young maid Franciszka whose granny is accommodated in the home’s quarters for indigent residents thus affording Zofia an excuse to visit the home and poke her nose into whatever is going on. Most of the time not very much is going on so that Zofia can concentrate on cultivating the acquaintance of assorted countesses and baronesses so as to enhance her social status and ensuring that she (and her husband) are invited to as many grand functions as possible.

But then Mrs Mohr, one of the better-off residents of Helcel House, goes missing. Mrs Mohr was very elderly and more or less bedbound, so she is hardly likely to have left her room of her own accord. When her body is found in a room on the little-visited upper floor it at first seems that her death is not suspicious although Zofia is puzzled as to how someone as infirm as Mrs Mohr could have got to the upper floor. And then one of Helcel House’s indigent residents is found, clearly murdered. And Zofia sets out to unmask the culprit, although as a woman the investigating authorities do not take her seriously. Nonetheless in the end she succeeds and finds that she now has a new interest in life.

I wasn’t sure at first how to take this book. Zofia is not a very appealing character – snobbish, humourless, patronising at best to her social inferiors, sometimes downright unpleasant – until she gets involved in amateur sleuthing her favourite pastimes are gossip, backbiting, venomous exchanges with anyone she thinks is ‘dissing’ her. And sacking servants apart from the faithful Franciszka. As I read on, however, it seemed that it was in a way rather like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with Zofia as an only slightly less ferocious Lady Bracknell. And it does provide a splendid picture of life in Warsaw at the time with these forceful ladies taking each other on whenever and wherever they can.There can be no doubt that in other centres of culture right across Europe similar battles were being fought – in societies where it was men who worked there was little else for women to do.

This is an entertaining, and with its depiction of upper-class life in a now vanished society, an informative read including references to Poland’s troubled past.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarcynski

Jacek Dehnel is a writer, poet and translator. He has written several novels, among them Lala (Oneworld, 2018) and Saturn (Dedalus, 2012), and his poetry collection Aperture was published by Zephyr Press in 2018. He writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Maryla Szymiczkowa together with partner 

Piotr Tarczynski, a translator and historian. They live in Warsaw.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a prize-winning translator of Polish literature. She has translated works by many of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and authors of reportage, as well as crime fiction, poetry, screenplays, essays, and children's books. She is a mentor for the WCN Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme, and from 2015-17 was co-chair of the Translators Association. Her previous translations of work by Jacek Dehnel include the ovels Lala (Oneworld Publications, 2018) and Saturn (Dedalus Books, 2012).

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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