Mrs Mohr Goes Missing is a crime novel set in Cracow in 1893. Full of period details and real historical facts, it’s the first in a series featuring Zofia Turbotyńska, the bored wife of a medical professor. Her efforts to advance her social position by getting involved in charitable fund-raising soon lead her to a much more exciting hobby: solving murders. In this, she is ably supported by her quick-witted cook, Franciszka.
At this point in the story, a corpse has been discovered at Helcel House, the retirement home run by nuns where Zofia is pursuing her charitable aims. Not convinced that the death was entirely natural, she wants to find out if there’s a poison that could leave its victim looking rosy-cheeked. But she wants to do this piece of research without anyone – especially her husband, Ignacy – realizing why she’s so interested in lethal toxins. So she arranges a supper party, and includes among the guests a colleague of her husband’s, Dr Iwaniec, who happens to be a toxicologist. Other guests include Mrs Iwaniec, medical student Tadeusz Żeleński, Zofia’s cousin and social rival Józefa Dutkiewicz, and an uninspiring couple named Zaremba.
Organising a supper party, not even a particularly lavish one, almost from one day to the next was quite a challenge. The provisions – wine, lemonade, meats, fish and aspic – could all be obtained, bought and prepared with the help of Franciszka and the new girl, who in the process would have the chance to pass the final test for the post of housemaid. The real problem was the guests, assembling whom at such short notice was not so easy. In her invitation to Dr and Mrs Iwaniec, Zofia had somewhat embroidered reality. She had spoken of ‘a small but select company’ that would gather for supper on Thursday. It was indeed small – apart from Żeleński, who agreed to accept the invitation by way of thanks for the tickets, for the time being it consisted of no one but Dr and Mrs Iwaniec. Zofia was counting on inviting the Teichmanns, maybe even with the daughter-who-had-married-a-baron, but unfortunately Antosia came back with the news that the professor was in poor health, and his wife was busy caring for her husband. The Olszewskis too sent their apologies, and so did the Wicherkowskis, the Żelskis and the Pomians, excusing themselves either with illness, earlier commitments, or church obligations. On a tide of desperation, sighing heavily, she sent the girl to Szewska Street, to the Zarembas. Thanks to their physical and spiritual debilities they were not the most popular guests in Cracow society, so one could invite them at the drop of a hat. Zofia meanwhile clenched her teeth, and with a heavy heart headed off to Floriańska Street, as if to Canossa, to invite her cousin, Mrs Dutkiewicz. And although the point of it all was not social success, but the opportunity to interrogate Dr Iwaniec, deep down she could not help regretting that the ‘small but select’ company was turning into a small but random one.
While the guests were slowly gathering, Zofia ran to and fro between the kitchen and the drawing room to see to Franciszka, and to keep a close eye on Antosia, though once again she had to admit that so far the girl was acquitting herself quite well. Dr Iwaniec, in a rather faded green frock coat, was the last to arrive. His stout wife had squeezed herself into a pale pink dress; on her face she wore the same disorientated look as usual. In fact, she only went where her husband led her, tripping along the way, first over the lion’s foot at the base of a chair leg, then over a potted palm. The remaining guests – the Zarembas, Mrs Dutkiewicz and Żeleński – were already in the drawing room, where Ignacy was trying to amuse them with conversation, though it was hard to find a topic they would all find entertaining. Luckily Mrs Zaremba had an endless supply of prattle at her disposal. With the entry of Dr and Mrs Iwaniec came a string of introductions. Meanwhile, Zofia discreetly signalled to Antosia, pointing at the door into the dining room; Antosia took a few hesitant steps and stopped, unsure what she was meant to do, then opened the door and closed it behind her from the other side. As quietly as possible. Zofia rolled her eyes to the ceiling, opened out both leaves of the door herself, and invited the guests to take their seats at the festively laid table, while she ran to see if the first course was ready to be served. She didn’t give Franciszka any orders or instructions, but simply nodded like a general at the front. Operation ‘Supper Party’ had commenced.
When she came back and took her place at the table, Ignacy and Dr Iwaniec were discussing politics: they were talking about the late French president, Marshal MacMahon, and how in his day he had crushed the Paris commune (Ignacy was for him, Iwaniec strongly against); about the latest electoral reform proposed by the prime minister, Graf von Taaffe (Iwaniec was for it, Ignacy not necessarily); and also about the audience that His Excellency the Governor had given on Monday here in Cracow, at the Spiski Palace (here they were in agreement that it was a highly significant event, testifying to the city’s superior status). Zaremba couldn’t hear much, so he concentrated on the soup and the drinks, nodding perhaps in agreement, or perhaps because of too much of the latter. His better half had trapped Żeleński and was telling him in agonisingly tedious detail about a charity collection, in which she had recently taken part, for the benefit of a church in distant Paraguay. Mrs Dutkiewicz and Mrs Iwaniec, sticking to the topic of life eternal, though undoubtedly in a more secular version, were exchanging comments on the medium, Eusapia Palladino, who – as rumour had it – was soon to arrive in Warsaw.
Could you gentlemen not bring Miss Palladino here to us in Cracow?’ asked Mrs Iwaniec loudly.
‘That charlatan? Good God, Leokadia,’ replied her husband. ‘Medicine is a science, and a serious scientist does not waste his time on nonsense.’
‘Is that so?’ said Mrs Iwaniec, bristling. ‘She is travelling to Warsaw at the invitation of a group of the local doctors. For whom the company of that extraordinary woman is evidently no dishonour. What’s more, I read in the press that medical authorities throughout Europe have testified to the authenticity of her experiments, including Dr Lombroso!’ Mrs Iwaniec was undoubtedly well prepared.
‘Lombroso? Bishop Lombroso of Fiesole?’ Mrs Zaremba interjected.
‘No, my dear lady, an Italian doctor who claims to have described the typical physical features of criminals and felons,’ explained Żeleński, overjoyed that at last the subject had changed.
‘Claims to have?’ said Iwaniec, raising his voice irritably; driven into a tight corner by his wife, he had decided to get out of it by launching a cruel attack on the weakest section of the enemy’s defences, an action worthy of Marshal MacMahon himself. ‘Young man, surely you don’t presume to question the findings of a first-rate scholar? Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think your academic achievement to date gives you the right. Moreover, one does not have to look far to perceive the accuracy of his theories. The watchman at Helcel House, who only days ago cruelly took the life of an innocent woman, is a typical example of Lombroso’s “criminaloid”: an overprominent jaw, large ears, a low brow and a hunched posture. It all fits. Every last detail.’
‘Do excuse me, doctor, but it so happens that on my visits to Helcel House, where I act in a charitable role, I have seen this man at close quarters, and I must say that he made an entirely positive impression on me,’ said Zofia, ‘nor did I notice the jaw of a troglodyte.’
The Italian doctor’s theory, which naturally she had heard of before now, seemed to her doubtful; if physical appearance were inevitably linked with a penchant for crime, Sister Alojza should long since have slit the throats of infants in their cradles. But she decided to keep this thought to herself. Instead, having finally spotted an opportunity to steer the discussion on to the right track, she asked: ‘What about a poisoner? Does a poisoner have typical physical features, too? Why, Lucrezia Borgia sent whole hordes of victims to the next world without ceasing to be a beauty, did she not?’
‘Indeed, Mrs Turbotyńska, poison is the weapon of women, but the female sex is different from the male, as we are perfectly aware,’ declared Iwaniec and laughed heartily, glancing at Antosia, who had nearly gathered up the empty mushroom soup plates.
‘The Borgias poisoned their victims with arsenic, didn’t they?’
‘They did indeed. Arsenic oxide looks like sugar or flour, and unlike strychnine, which is extremely bitter, it has no smell or flavour, so no wonder it was the favourite poison for all those years, not just for rats. La poudre de succession – inheritance powder, as the French would say.’
‘What are its effects?’
‘Stomach pain, vomiting and other complaints best not mentioned at the dinner table…’ said the doctor hesitantly.
‘But on the contrary, please go on, this is fascinating.’
On the other side of the table one of the women audibly suppressed a groan.
‘Complications… of the intestine, damage to the heart,’ Iwaniec explained patiently. ‘The victim usually dies within fifteen hours or so, though sometimes it takes longer. The actual death is very violent – in cases where large amounts have been ingested, of course. But if it is dispensed slowly, in small doses, the poisoning can go on for months, years even. And it doesn’t always happen consciously – arsenic is sometimes to be found in wallpaper or domestic paints. Paris green, for instance,’ he said, pointing at the dark green walls of the Turbotyńskis’ dining room, at which Mrs Dutkiewicz, already pale, went as white as chalk.
‘Arsenic is sometimes prescribed for skin diseases, and it’s an ingredient in the popular English patent medicine, Fowler’s solution,’ added Żeleński, wanting to show off his knowledge.
‘So it is, young man, so it is. But I would not wish…’
Just then Antosia began to serve the catfish, but, unabashed, Zofia mercilessly carried on.
‘Do all poisons have an equally brutal effect, making it instantly plain to see that the victim was poisoned, rather than dying of any other cause?’
‘Well, most of them, yes. Strychnine, for example, prompts very strong spasms, making the unfortunate victim stiffen, as if suffering from tetanus’ – at this point Iwaniec convincingly assumed a dramatic scowl – ‘the face twisted into a sardonic smile. But if morphine, for example, is administered in excessive doses it merely stupefies, causes heaviness of the limbs, somnolence, and finally a gentle death in one’s sleep. The pupils shrink to the size of pinheads, and from the arms of Hypnos one falls straight into the embrace of Thanatos.’
‘Zofia, my dear, let that be an end to this topic, eh? Cousin Józefa appears to be feeling weak…’ said Ignacy.
‘She’s not the only one,’ added Mrs Zaremba, and glanced at her husband, counting on his support, but he was busy with his catfish and only scraps of the conversation were getting through to him.
‘What if the dead person looks healthy?’ Zofia pressed.
‘Healthy?’ said Iwaniec, frowning. ‘No dead person ever looks healthy. The cessation of life is a symptom of a decided lack of health. A definitive one, I would say.’
‘What if their cheeks are pleasantly pink?’ asked Zofia, then, seeing that Mrs Dutkiewicz was ostentatiously fanning herself with her napkin, added: ‘Antosia, open the drawing room window a little, would you, please? But not far enough to cause a draught.’ Mrs Zaremba began clucking about the fatal consequences of sitting in a draught.
‘Oh, that sort of redness is not a sign of health, it’s a morbid blush. Lethal!’ said the doctor, raising a finger. ‘Cyanide. It causes a headache, breathlessness, numbness, and heart palpitations. No wonder it can easily be confused with a heart attack. But it brings certain death, and gives off a characteristic odour of bitter almonds… Stronger doses cause bruising, but if they’re moderate, especially in the case of shop-bought cyanide, contaminated with other salts, the skin remains pink for quite a time. From the chemical point of view of course, it’s to do with…’
‘Damazy, please,’ said Mrs Iwaniec, who though she could not see the reaction of the other guests, could sense it all too strongly.
‘It is I who must apologise,’ said Zofia repentantly; now that she had achieved her aim, she instantly transformed herself into the perfect lady of the house, ‘but medicine is truly fa-scina-ting. I feel blessed by God for giving me a doctor as a husband. A man who saves the lives of others.’
‘My dear Zofia,’ grunted Ignacy, ‘I don’t save any lives.’
‘But you could!’
‘I feel blessed, too!’ chimed in Mrs Iwaniec, at which Mrs Zaremba exclaimed: The fortune of a wife is indeed a blessing…’
Suddenly they all fell silent, remembering that Mrs Dutkiewicz was a widow.
‘My late lamented husband,’ she said reverently, ‘was a man of great goodness. His task may have been more modest, but as an officer of the Mutual Assurance Society he too saved lives. Such as the families of those who died prematurely, by helping them to obtain financial compensation at a time of tragedy.’
‘A truly Christian soul,’ said Zofia, seeking to minimise the nasty taste.
‘I have heard that he is still remembered with great devotion by his colleagues,’ added Ignacy.
‘But his greatest gift was the children he so generously bestowed on me,’ Mrs Dutkiewicz went on. ‘Six of them,’ she said, casting a triumphant look at the ladies present. ‘Indeed, children – what a comfort for an elderly widow. My Maria and her Bruno have just produced a daughter.’
‘They have given her the name Zofia, haven’t they?’ said Zofia with feigned delight, piqued by the topic of motherhood.
‘Indeed,’ said Mrs Dutkiewicz, ‘but I am sure she will not be my only grandchild.’
And so somehow they waded through to the end of supper. Antosia served the dessert, Żeleński told them how as an adolescent he had spent the holidays at the family mansion in Grodkowice, where he was tremendously bored, because there was nothing in the library but old copies of Czech’s Calendar, Cracow’s annual who’s who (‘An extremely useful publication!’ Ignacy had interrupted him), books about farming and a couple of Fredro’s comedies, where someone had added crosses to mark which scenes should not be read to young ladies. Then the gentlemen had gone into the library, where Ignacy and Zaremba reminisced about their student days, while in the ladies’ circle Mrs Zaremba made a long speech about the properties of certain face powders and rose water.
When the door closed behind the final guests, Zofia told herself with satisfaction that the supper had been a great success. Though of course she realised that she was alone in this opinion. For a long time to come Mrs Zaremba would talk of the ‘bizarre habits prevalent in that house’, and Mrs Dutkiewicz would cast suspicious glances at any dark green wallpaper.
This excerpt is taken from Maryla Szymiczkowa’s “Mrs Mohr Goes Missing”, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, published by Point Blank.
Maryla Szymiczkowa is a pen-name of two Polish writers: Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones