Translated Polish historical fiction and a murder mystery with a female amateur detective plus an incredible cover – just my cup of tea. Thanks to NetGalley and Oneworld for my arc – this book is now available to buy.
Before I even looked at the content as such, I was already all for reading this book as there isn’t nearly enough translated fiction out there. The book has been supported by the European Council as well as the publishers and it is part of Oneworld’s fab translated fiction catalogue, which you can find here. Mrs Mohr has been translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
So Milena, what is the book actually about, I hear you say: This is the first amateur detective mission for Zofia Turbotynska, a 38-year-old, middle-class, married woman living in Cracow in 1893. Always wanting to improve her social standing and determined to relieve her boredom, she becomes involved in a charity project connecting her with the nearby Helcel House, a new retirement home run by nuns. Zofia is pulled into (or rather, she actively involves herself in) the hunt for the murderer of one of the old ladies there (Mrs Mohr of the title) and of course, there is more death to follow. Zofia, reminiscent of Miss Marple, discovers that her talent and passion lies in detective work.
The setting is a fresh take on Golden Age crime themed mysteries: Although I know a fair bit about Golden Age crime, I know very little indeed about Poland’s history and next to nothing about Krakow itself. I really appreciated the preface with a very brief description of that period in Polish history. I thought it incredibly interesting to see what was going on elsewhere in Europe in Victorian times i.e. Emperor Franz Joseph Habsburg, ruler of Austria-Hungary. Plus, the entire book has that almost indefinable East Europeanness that I adore in books – I am very much drawn to fiction set in these parts.
So, without going into a history lecture, I will keep it brief and say that Krakow was a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions. It was a place of divided loyalties, those loyal to Austria and nationalists increasingly longing for independence. Like so many other countries, it was also a place of inequality in terms of gender and the class system. All of this becomes apparent, mostly in a dry humoured, digestible fashion that reminded me of other Victorian narratives focusing on witty social commentary. This isn’t a book to challenge, it is a light read but the awareness is very much there and to be honest, I just really enjoyed the snarkiness and often witty commentary.The sheer quirkiness of the narrative and especially the main character of Zofia: I will be honest and say that at first, I couldn’t connect with Zofia; she felt rather two-dimensional and was just incredibly unlikable. But I gave her a chance and as the story progressed, there were some glimpses into her character that showed the potential of a much more complex character. She may hide that side of herself well but there is definitely something intriguing about her below her bourgeois surface. Zofia is definitely a force of nature and I admired that in what was very much a man’s world. She uses the tools available to her, playing the social system to get to the complicated truth of her case. The fact that she hides it all from her professor husband and her work is never publicly acknowledged, illustrates perfectly the double life she leads in order to find herself. I also loved the chemistry between Zofia and her two sidekicks, her cook Franciszka and the wonderful nun, Sister Alojza at Helcel House. She by no means sees them as equals, there is much superiority and naive thinking on Zofia’s part, but nevertheless, these women unite and use their intelligence and skills to solve the mystery together.
It could have been better…
The overplaying of stereotypes and the often too obvious nod to the Golden Age of crime fiction: Whilst I read the book as a humorous ode to Golden Age crime, sometimes it felt too over the top, it borrowed too much, and this affected the story’s originality. A lot of the characters were types too, with very little depth apart from their function within the plot or to support the social/political statements being made. I thought this was a shame.Too many internal monologues: Sophia has a lot of internal conversations where she keeps retelling the story so far, trying to work out what has happened and where this will lead her. It felt pretty repetitive at times. And she never reaches any conclusions or even hints of conclusions but then suddenly at the end, she knows everything. For me, this made both the flow and coherence of the narrative disjointed.The highlighting of Cracow’s Jewish inhabitants: I’ll be honest and say I didn’t understand what the authors (incidentally, the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa is pseudonym for the writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski) were trying to achieve with Zofia’s haphazard way of regularly and noticeably pointing out which characters were Jewish. This didn’t seem to go anywhere and felt odd. The preface tells us that a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish, but most were not assimilated and led separate lives, even those assimilated into society were treated as second class citizens. I felt that an opportunity to explore this was missed.The translation of the local/national accents/dialects: It felt too much of a caricature. As a reader and translator, I think that such things are rarely done well and often choosing to leave the accent to the reader’s imagination is a more effective option. When dialect is done well it can add a valuable layer of meaning, but this was not the case here. Again, I wasn’t quite sure whether there is an element of parody to the dialect – if so, I can see why it’s there, but it still didn’t work for me.
It is the first book in a series, and I think there was enough there to hook me and for me to hope that the things I wasn’t too impressed with will be developed and straightened out as the series continues. I will certainly give book 2 a go when it is translated. And I hope the next cover is just as wonderful 😊