I can’t figure out how I missed the first book in this series, because this series is so exactly my sort of thing – a well-written historical mystery in a slightly unusual (to me, at least) setting: Cracow in the waning years of the 19th century. In the 1890s, Cracow was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, albeit with a fair amount of autonomy, which included maintaining its own universities. And in this time and place, Zofia Turbotynska is the intelligent wife of a medical professor at Cracow’s ancient and respected Jagiellonian University.
Intelligent enough, in fact, that she isn’t convinced that the killer of her recently murdered maid, Karolina, is actually the man who was shot to death while trying to evade capture. Was that man really the “newly graduated engineer” who had recently been courting Karolina – or just a convenient scapegoat? What about Karolina’s long-term sort-of boyfriend – might he have been involved? Or the cadets who had been partying a bit more than they should, just before discovering Karolina’s body in the river?
So when Zofia’s other maid, Franciszka, sees the supposed dead man in town, looking very much alive, Zofia and Franciszka start investigating. Along the way, they confront a few stereotypes, meet a professor with an interesting research specialty, do a bit of jostling for social position, talk with local authorities about some of the latest developments in forensics (!!!), visit with Karolina’s mother, learn a bit more about brothels and the sex trade than a pair of respectable women should know, make plum jam, and eventually figure out who really did it. And then of course, Zofia’s sharp elbows prod the authorities to do something about it – all while keeping her husband, Ignacy, in the dark about what she has been up to.
I found Karolina and the Torn Curtain to be a wonderful read – mostly quick and fun, but with some serious moments that made me think. These serious moments also made Zofia think and grow, and I look forward to seeing how she develops in later books. As an aside, I loved the little quotes at the beginnings of the chapters, and had fun seeing them “come true” in some unexpected ways. The historical note at the end of the book provided some nice background, and also got me curious enough to do some googling about Cracow and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on my own. I now plan on going back to read the first book, and also will be eagerly waiting (hoping) for the next two books, currently available in Polish, to be translated into English. And finally, my thanks to Mariner Books and NetGalley for the advance review copy!