Novel readers are well acquainted with the darker side of Victorian England, the often-wretched lives of the poor and society’s gaping inequalities. We also may have had literary glimpses into the lives and adventures of those in government and law-enforcement circles. Julia Stuart’s hilarious novel offers a look at a slice of Victorian life that may not be quite so familiar.
By Linda C. Brinson
THE PIGEON PIE MYSTERY. By Julia Stuart. Read by Hannah Curtis. Books on Tape (Random House). 10 hours, 9 compact discs. Also available in print from Doubleday. 336 pages. $24.95.
This delightful book was published in 2012, but I somehow overlooked it until just recently.
As the title indicates, this is a mystery, but don’t approach the book expecting your usual tidy British mystery. Oh, the elements are all here: a murder, plenty of intriguing suspects, a plot, a determined sleuth, and an eventual denouement. But they are surrounded by so much more – wonderful digressions, eccentricities, hyperbole, a touch of satire, and, above all, comedy.
Yes, this is definitely a comic mystery, with the emphasis on comic. But don’t approach it as just a comedy, either. Julia Stuart has managed the impressive feat of writing a book that succeeds on several levels – including a historically accurate, if perhaps a trifle exaggerated, picture of the values, manners and prejudices of the British upper-class and its hangers-on when Queen Victoria ruled over her empire. And, despite the hilarity and the characterizations that border on caricature, Stuart also manages to make us care about the people she creates, and be moved by their relationships.
Our heroine, and eventually our sleuth, is Princess Alexandrina, familiarly known as Mink. Though her claim to royalty is of the Indian variety, her mother was British, and she has lived all her life in England, where her father, the Maharaja of Prindur, took refuge after Queen Victoria’s troops stole his inheritance.
When the maharaja dies suddenly, Mink is at first embarrassed by the scandalous and highly publicized nature of his passing. Then, as she realizes he had squandered all the family fortune and more, leaving her penniless and soon to be homeless, she is more than embarrassed.
Fortunately and surprisingly, Queen Victoria comes to the rescue, inviting Mink to move into one of the “grace-and-favour” residences at Hampton Court Palace. The only servant Mink has left is Pooki, the loyal Indian who filled the void after Mink’s mother died. Highly superstitious, Pooki is loath to move to the palace because of its reputation for being haunted.
But, with nowhere else to go, Mink and Pooki settle in at Hampton Court and begin to find their place in the odd society there – mostly widows of high-ranking military officers, impoverished lesser nobility and the like, with, of course, their servants.
Although the majority of the residents are women, Major-General George Bagshot, a thoroughly obnoxious man, lives there with his wife, who is away on an extended trip. The general has a visitor, Cornelius B. Pilgrim, who is an American, which is reason enough for him to become a leading suspect when the general turns up dead.
Suspicion soon turns, however, to Pooki, who had baked the pigeon pie that the general – and only the general – had eaten at a picnic in the palace gardens moments before he collapsed.
Fearing that poor Pooki will hang, Mink launches her career as an investigator, discovering as she pursues the real murderer that many of the palace’s eccentric residents are concealing secrets.
There’s so much more – a monkey that wears red velvet trousers; a tyrannical housekeeper; a bicycle-riding, lovesick doctor; a pregnant maid; a bug-eating hedgehog; a bewildering maze and its keeper… Everyone has a story, and Stuart doesn’t hesitate to tell any of them, in fascinating detail.
This novel is as richly layered as Pooki’s pigeon pie, and a lot more appealing.
Some books are equally good in print or in audio form. Some, perhaps because of their complexity, shifts in time and cast of characters, are better in print. Although I have no doubt that the printed version The Pigeon Pie Mystery would be a pleasure to read, I suspect this is a book that’s even better in audio form. Hannah Curtis does a wonderful job with the accents and voices, her occasional deadpan delivery achieving just the right flavor of droll humor.