Cracking a Julia Stuart novel is like opening the door of an old-fashioned English tearoom. A bell tinkles merrily, and you enter a cozy world all the more inviting for being slightly claustrophobic. The atmosphere is warm and soporific, the clientele is familiar and the treats are reassuringly predictable. There are no nasty jolts, not even when murder is committed.
Following the success of her previous novel, “The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise,” which was set in the Tower of London, Stuart places “The Pigeon Pie Mystery” at Hampton Court Palace. The year is 1897, and the place has long been a tourist attraction. The only occupants are the palace staff and a handful of decayed aristocrats known as “grace-and-favour” residents who have been granted apartments by royal decree. (Stuart, as always, has done her homework, informing us that the last such warrants were granted in the 1980s and that “two grace-and-favour-residents still live there.”)
The novel opens on a wintry London street peppered by hailstones. From her carriage, our heroine watches “the shoppers on Regent Street, the gritty downpour toppling the ostrich feathers on their elegant hats.” Young Princess Alexandrina, nicknamed Mink, accompanied by her Indian maid, Pooki, is shopping for mourning clothes. Her father, the Maharaja of Prindur, has died in embarrassing circumstances (atop an obliging servant), leaving Mink not only bereaved but also impoverished. As the family solicitor explains, “The Maharaja had routinely spent more than the annual stipend the British Government had paid him since he signed the treaty following the annexation of Prindur.” Gambling, women and an exotic menagerie, among other indulgences, have consumed Mink’s inheritance. But the princess has spirit (inherited perhaps from her English mother), and she has Pooki, her devoted companion. She also has a broken heart that finds welcome distraction when she is granted an apartment at Hampton Court.
“The creeping darkness had snuffed out the dusky salmon hue of the bricks,” she notices as she arrives at dusk, “and the crenulations stood brutally against the sky streaked with night.” The palace is a constant presence in Stuart’s novel, and it inspires some of her best writing. With a few lines, she can evoke the dankness of a Tudor passageway or the sudden light filling a courtyard. In economical digressions, she also fills in the history. We learn about the foibles of various monarchs and about the “famous Astronomical Clock made for Henry VIII, which could tell the time of high water at London bridge.”
Stuart’s fictional characters might seem at times to have stepped out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but they too are deftly sketched. When the formidable Lady Montfort Bebb declares, “If there’s one thing in life I’m used to, it’s being shot at,” we believe her. (She is, after all, a survivor of the infamous 1842 British retreat from Kabul). And when we spy on young Dr. Henderson bandaging his hair in an attempt to achieve “the plastered look, all the rage in New York,” we can picture the humiliation that lies ahead.
Mink causes a stir in this cloistered, snobbish world. She is young, beautiful and advanced, a superb shot and a brilliant fencer. With cutting wit, she easily repels the sweaty advances of the disgusting Gen. Bagshot and feigns indifference when she encounters the hapless and instantly besotted Dr. Henderson. Mink’s composure is tested, however, when Bagshot dies after sampling a pigeon pie baked by Pooki. Arsenic poisoning is the coroner’s verdict, and when the police begin to construct their case against Pooki, Mink begins her own investigation. “Was it Lady Montfort Bebb, who had taken exception to General Bagshot’s criticism of her piano playing?” she wonders. “Or was it Lady Beatrice, who had purchased some arsenic before the General’s death?”
There’s also an American visitor who is, of course, the butt of many jokes. In true comic opera fashion, long-buried secrets are exposed and true identities are revealed as the loathsome Inspector Guppy closes in. The novel’s final twist is nicely convoluted and involves, as all Victorian melodramas should, a baby lost and found while, along the way, Stuart entertains us with arcane details of everything from scalp tonic to syphilis.
Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer in Central Massachusetts.
THE PIGEON PIE MYSTERY
By Julia Stuart
313 pp. $24.95