Mrs Mohr Goes Missing: a Polish Mystery

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.

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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.

I enjoyed…

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.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe 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.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eToo 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.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe 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.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe 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.

So, overall…

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 😊

The Vanishing Futurist

I first came across Charlotte Hobson when I was a student, deeply fascinated by Eastern European history, culture and politics. She had just published Black Earth City, an account of her year spent as a student in Russia.

Though it has been quite some time since I read it – and I think I see a re-read on the horizon this summer – I do remember being absolutely drawn into her writing and devouring the book in one sitting. There might have been vodka involved too 😉 I love how even now, looking at a book spine can bring back such intense memories. Because of this experience, I was really excited to read Hobson’s first fiction book, The Vanishing Futurist, which was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It has been discussed by many of the lovely booktubers I follow and what emerged was very much a love/hate divide. I loved it.

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First a warning: The Vanishing Futurist asks a lot of the reader, I think it certainly requires a passion for Russian history and politics as it is full to the brim with political comment. For me it was a perfect fit and I really enjoyed exercising my brain, remembering everything I have researched over the years. The October Revolution, and the following years, saw people actually trying to break the mould of social political thinking and I find this truly fascinating.

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The story is of a young English woman, desperate to break away from the restrictions facing her in post Edwardian England, ready for freedom and an adventure of her own.  She takes on a role as governess for an aristocratic family in Russia and not long after she arrives, the October Revolution happens. Gerty falls in love with a socialist revolutionary inventor named Slavkin and becomes part of a socialist commune- the Institute for Revolutionary Transformation – where its inhabitants strive to transform into true socialists. The book then tracks Gerty’s experiences, the development of communism with its many layers and Slavkin’s weird and wonderful invention of a time machine, initially constructed to bring true communism forward, combating the hardships of war as well as the often-questionable actions of the government.

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I loved the portrayal of the commune in its early stages very much. The youthful, sincere passion for true social and political change, for art, for life itself, really struck a chord with my younger self. The feeling of endless possibilities and faith in the future of humanity were delicious. I also thought that the contrasting reality of the commune was excellently portrayed with selfishness, arguments, class divides, extreme poverty and sometimes hilariously absurd inclinations thrown into the mix. We see these young people as glorious yet at the same time very naïve human beings, trying to find their own sense of belonging.

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The darker developments within communism are very apparent to the reader throughout the book and Hobson has an immense knowledge, which she shares in great depth with us. The sense of foreboding, of an immerging totalitarian undercurrent, is incredibly well written in my opinion. Censorship, manipulation of power and the loss of promised equality are explored intelligently; Hobson contrasts episodes of humour with devastating, stark reality for a powerful effect. Having said all this, I also believe that Hobson writes with a deep love for Russia, there is such warmth and fondness prevalent in her descriptions of the mannerisms, traditions and history of the Russian people. This book was clearly a labour of love and I know it took her years to write.

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Hobson is also very keen to explore the idea of art and censorship and in the afterword, she talks about the Futurist movement at the beginning of Russia’s period of socialism. Slavkin’s creations are abstract and quite hard for a reader of today to understand. As well as the time machine, there is a propaganda machine, where a person enters and is transformed by intense images, sounds, smells and movement until they come back out a true communist. I think this makes a statement about the methods of political manipulation in itself but its farcical nature is true to the imaginings of artists at the time, wanting to break the rules and constraints previously placed upon them, opening themselves up completely to experimentation and the unknown. There is a wonderfully captured sense of freedom there, which was monumental after decades of traditionalist rule.Books 2

I also believe that Slavkin’s more and more abstract way of thinking and acting can be seen as portrayal of a man struggling with his mental health and society’s response to this. I really like how Hobson adds many layers to her writing for us to interpret and as always, I think that the intelligent exploration of mental illness is a very important thing indeed.

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I admit that the plot is at times difficult to engage with, such as a rather lengthy science lecture given by Slavkin or some of the weird and wonderful methods the commune test out in order to ‘transform’ themselves into true socialists. However, for me these sections didn’t affect my overall connection with the characters or the plot, although I know for other readers this style was very dry and distant.

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Aside from the politics, I loved that at this book’s heart is the very universal theme of first love with all its intense highs and lows. It also looks at unrequited love, of the power love holds and how it can be manipulated as well as how love can save you when you least expect it. I found that the final third of the book had much more of a traditional, character driven story telling element to it, it branches away from the intense political observation and social comment. It felt like Hobson was saying that in the end the art of being human prevails and is indeed the deciding factor in this crazy world.

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I will leave you with Gerty’s thoughts on change when, as an old woman, she reflects on her time in Russia, followed by a memory of Slavkin talking, both of which I find poignant in our current political climate:

‘Despite or rather, because of the fact that the future is unknowable, each of us bears a responsibility towards it. If all that our imagination can summon up is some limp, apathetic, cynical vision of a world just like the one in which we now live, then frankly that is all we deserve.’

‘Inside your imagination lies the blueprint for the future.’