Dehnel and Tarczynski find it hard not to finish each other’s sentences. “I think Jacek is sometimes…” begins Tarczynski when asked how their writing styles differ. “Too opulent,” Dehnel interjects. “And I am a little…” Tarczynski resumes, before being interrupted again. “Too dry,” Dehnel says with a laugh.
This married couple are the writers of a new Agatha Christie-esque crime fiction series set in the Polish city of Kraków. They have already published three books in Poland about Zofia Turbotyńska, a housewife-cum-sleuth who they invented in 2015. At turns gripping and hilarious, the first volume, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, set in the 1890s, was translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Oneworld last month.
The English cover of Mrs Mohr Goes Missing and the Polish covers of the other two Szymiczkowa books
While their authorship is no secret, the two men use the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa, which combines the names of Tarczynski’s great-great-grandmother and Dehnel’s great-great-aunt. This subterfuge was designed to distinguish their joint writing from their other solo publications, but they also wanted to challenge crime fiction conventions and gender stereotypes. Dehnel explains that the choice of a female protagonist and female pen name are both attempts to “say things about modern Polish society.” The second novel in the series, currently being translated into English, tackles female suffrage, human trafficking, and prostitution.
Dehnel, 38, who was wearing a bow tie and carrying a cane during a recent interview in London, was already an established novelist and poet before he and Tarczynski began collaborating. The sharp tongued Tarczynski, 35, is a literary translator and historian — and the character of Turbotyńska and the idea for the murder mystery series belong to him.
Their joint project is more than just a literary curiosity: it is a way of challenging preconceptions about the place of sexual minorities in Poland. They speak openly about their relationship, (not least on the back cover of their books) and they are one of just a handful of Polish gay couples with a public profile. After marrying in London last year (same-sex marriage is illegal in Poland), they have insisted their publisher uses the word “husband” in blurbs. Though the pair downplay the risks of their visibility, Poland’s politics have taken a sharp conservative turn in recent years. In March, the country’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party began an internationally-condemned anti-LGBTQ campaign ahead of approaching elections.
“In Poland, it’s important [to be out], because if people know that gays and lesbians are around them, that they are their neighbours, favourite authors, TV personalities, comedians, and family members, of course attitudes change,” says Tarczynski. “You have to do it: it’s community work. It doesn’t give me much pleasure to be honest: I don’t like being photographed, but we do it because we have to. If we don’t do it, there are not that many other couples who would.”
View of Kraków. Image: Jakub Hałun under a CC license
While they say that “effort-wise” they split the writing work equally, Dehnel and Tarczynski have different creative roles: Tarczynski does 90 per cent of the research and Dehnel about 60 per cent of the writing. Before they pick the sections they each want to write, they say they draw up an extremely detailed plan — and after writing, they edit each other’s work.
Their stories lack violence, and they say this classifies them as “cosy crime”, a genre with tension, but without the terror. Dehnel and Tarczynski’s heroine Turbotyńska is the frustrated wife of a medical professor, and they describe her petty scheming, social climbing, and stinginess with a mixture of affection and caricature. “We want to educate her,” Dehnel explains with a smile. “She’s very conservative, bourgeois, stubborn, and very intelligent, but hides many things from herself.”
When they came up with the idea for a murder mystery series, they conceived of it as a side project: an experiment that may or may not work. Now, they talk — only half jokingly — about how, if Turbotyńska continues to solve murders at the same pace, she can keep going until the early 1940s — when she will be over 90 and Dehnel and Tarczynski, if they produce books at their current rate, will be well into their sixties.
The historical details are an aspect of the writing that keep Dehnel and Tarczynski coming back for more. “For any historical novel, one of the pleasures is that you get a peak into a different world,” says Dehnel — in this case, a world in which Krakow was a provincial city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of the details in Mrs Mohr Goes Missing are authentic: from an unsightly fire exit on Kraków’s theatre that earns Turbotyńska’s ire, to the elaborate funeral of a famous local painter. Before they start writing, Tarczynski, who grew up in Kraków, carries out research trips in the archives. “I personally hate it when, in books or TV series, the past is treated as the present but with different costumes,” he says.
A photo that Dehnel and Tarczynski use for Turbotyńska (L), Dehnel and Tarczynski (C), Tarczynski's great-great-grandmother, Józefa Dutkiewiczowa, who is the basis for a character in the detective novels (R)
But their fin de siècle murder mysteries are more than just simple historical mock-ups. “When you look at the modern political scene, you see a lot of things that have re-emerged from the past and the roots are often very deep,” says Dehnel.
Moreover, the pair also weave in characters based on figures from Polish literary history, and actual members of their own family, blurring the line between fact and fiction, and toying with the reader’s expectations. While this adds an exhilarating twist to the crime format, they confess the playfulness is often so hidden as to be only for their own amusement. “It’s supposed to be fun for us as well,” Tarczynski points out. “We try to make the novels more enjoyable not only for the readers, but also for ourselves. What’s the point of doing something you don’t like?”