With his third novel, Patrick deWitt joins the serried ranks of those authors who we come to recognise by the fact that none of their books resemble each other. First we had Ablutions, an immensely enjoyable if sort of random barfly tale; then we had The Sisters Brothers, another immensely enjoyable caper, this time set in the old west; now we have Undermajordomo Minor which is a sort of Mitteleuropean period affair (think Wes Anderson adapting Thomas Mann). If you enjoyed deWitt’s first two books, I think you can rest assured you’ll like this. At the same time, if you are of my wife’s bent and haven’t warmed to a thing he’s done yet – well, let’s just say there’s no understanding you people at the best of times so. We’re not going to worry about you too much.
Lucien Minor, known by most as Lucy, is leaving the town of Bury (a village ‘resting – or collected, he thought, like leavings, debris – in the crease of the valley’) to take up a position (as the eponymous Undermajordomo) in the Castle Von Aux, which necessitates a journey by train. Before he leaves, he bids a fond adieu to his former lady love, Marina, a beautiful girl of somewhat loose morals, who took up with Lucy and then, after complaining (‘you don’t have to handle me so gently, Lucy’), left him for another – and we get to see the kind of man Lucy is. In that he tells Marina her new beau has been cheating on her and a train delay (that itself warrants a bittersweet aside about an ambitious train conductor) allows his tale to unravel and for his deceit to be held up to the bitter light of day. Lucy, we learn, is a fool. In case we don’t quite get the lesson, deWitt gives us a second opportunity to glimpse Lucy’s foolishness later that journey when a pair of thieves rob everyone in the carriage and Lucy claims to have fought them off – in conversation with one of the thieves.
Upon arrival at the castle (about which is nestled both a small village and a forest that is home to various warring factions), Lucy is shown about by a Mr Olderglough (‘not an enthusiastic guide’) and made aware of his various duties (which seem to revolve more about Mr Olderglough himself than they do about their boss, Baron Von Aux). The Baron, we learn, is somewhat deranged, lovestruck, his good lady, the Baronness, having fled. Lucy must take letters, from the Baron to the Baronness, each day to the station, where he stands hand upstretched for the train driver to snatch as he passes without stopping. Despite an injunction not to read said correspondence, Lucy does, and the Baron comes across as a reasonable fellow, albeit a fellow suffering the pain of distance. And yet, someone half mad stalks the halls of the castle at night, hiding in shadows, devouring rats. Lucy also forms a curious friendship with the two thieves from the train, Memel and Mewe (the former, ‘an old man who seemed far younger than his years’, and the latter, ‘a source of fascination… a boy of perhaps ten with the mark of bitter time impressed upon his face’), despite the fact they are given to stealing his pipe and laughing at him. It is as a result of this friendship that Lucy comes to make the acquaintance of Klara, and begin an awkward romance.
And so the tale progresses in a rather lolloping fashion. The Baron receives a letter informing him that the Baronness is returning and the castle bursts forth into as much life as it is capable of. His romance with Klara falters upon the return of a former beau, himself off fighting in the aforementioned wars taking place at the foot of the castle (Lucy is warned off, retreats, watches from afar, judges the time to be right and makes his move afresh). And, of course, there is the mystery of Mr Broom, Lucy’s predecessor: what happened to him, where did he go, what can it possibly mean for Lucy? It’s all a bit daft, a bit Magnus Mills, a bit of a proof for those people who would question the need for novels (‘I mean,’ they might say, ‘what’s it about? what’s it for?’ – to which we would respond and say it’s an exquisite entertainment). It’s genuinely funny, funnier even than The Sisters Brothers. Here’s a sample of dialogue that had us chuckling:
“And what of the Baron? Is he faring as poorly as his wife?”
Lucy said, “Much like she, there is evidence of decline, and it is my opinion that this decline will become dire.”
“And what is the nature of their partnership at present?”
“How do you mean?”
“Are they functionally married?”
“How do you mean?”
“Possibly you already know what I mean.”
“Possibly I do.”
“And are they?”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve witnessed it.”
DeWitt has many strengths and they grow from book to book; his great strength here is to show us a man who is a fool, and an unsympathetic fool at that, and take us on a journey with him that makes us sympathise, and as the sympathy grows so too does both the comedy and the genuine affection. By the time the climax rolls around we wish Lucy all the best on the journey that he goes on to undertake without us. As with his previous outings, this is – we know – a book we’ll be re-reading in the coming years.
Any Cop?: Another massive gold star for deWitt.