Patrick deWitt’s novels don’t sneak up on you; they’re the kind you love instantly. His latest, Undermajordomo Minor (a follow-up to his Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers), is no exception. From the moment you tumble into its strange world, there is no other world. In that sense, and in its slightly mannered language, it’s like a fairy tale, although one with plenty of room inside for thoroughly modern, adult complications.
The story’s hero is Lucien (Lucy) Minor, a somewhat fussy, frail, proud young lad who’s leaving his village to take a job at a nearby castle, home of the Baron von Aux. Lucy has recently acquired a pipe and enjoys the mental image of himself smoking the pipe, although he doesn’t really know how to. “He adopted the carriage of one sitting in fathomless reflection,” deWitt writes, “though there was in fact no motion in his mind whatsoever.” But Lucy isn’t empty-headed at all; he’s just very self-conscious and lacking in experience of the world. Not for long, though.
Lucy’s direct supervisor at the castle is the majordomo, Mr. Olderglough, who quickly becomes fond of his new underling. Their banter is one of the many pleasures of the book; it’s sweet and brainy and feels genuinely affectionate despite being enjoyably theatrical. There’s also, of course, a love interest: Klara, the daughter of a charming thief Lucy encounters on the train to the castle—though she may be spoken for by the handsome soldier Adolphus, a hero in a confusing war being staged outside the castle grounds. And then there’s the baron himself, a mystery no one explains to Lucy until doing so becomes unavoidable.
But although there are plenty of mysteries in Undermajordomo Minor, nothing about them is frustrating. DeWitt explains exactly the right amount, in exactly the right tone, beginning to end.