Allen & Unwin, RRP $27.99
Patrick deWitt’s third novel takes us to an unnamed Russo-Romanian land in the steam age. Our comic hero, a village lad named Lucien (Lucy) Minor, travels to a remote castle to begin his career as the undermajordomo in Baron Van Aux’s eccentric household. On the train he avoids being robbed only to be politely mugged at the castle door. But it is when the door creaks open that his adventures really begin.
Comedy is possibly one of the most difficult genres to get right. All it takes is for one quip to miss the mark or for one gag seem a little too forced, for the whole illusion to dissolve before the reader. The writing must seem effortlessly, almost unavoidably humorous given the characters, the world and the events the writer is tackling. At the same time the reader must think of the characters as real people and yearn for their happiness. Luckily deWitt manages to keep the illusion going throughout the story. His eloquent, dry wit is a pleasure to read and the dialogue is spot on. All the characters are likeable, especially the rogues and murderers. The scene is beautifully set—a ramshackle village at the foot of a dilapidated castle surrounded by forests in which rebels and bandits wage constant war because they can think of nothing better to fill their days.
In Undermajordomo Minor we meet some wonderful people. There are the proud malefactors Memel and Mewe—the scene where Memel nobly strives to inspire the village children to devote their lives to thievery is worth the cover price of the novel alone. We also meet the lovely but poorly dressed Klara—no male reader of the species will be able to resist her fictional charms. Then there is the Majordomo, Mr Olderglough—a disappointed man who keeps a silent myna bird as a pet. Baron Van Aux makes a surprising appearance and a peach tart is put to a use it was never intended. (If it was ever made into a movie the “peach tart” scene would be the one the actors dreaded shooting.)
At the centre of the whole comic farce is the lovable Lucy, the double dealing innocent with a heart, not of gold but of shiny tin. We follow Lucy through this odd coming-of-age story to his final…ah but that would be giving it away. Unlike most novelists Patrick deWitt can deliver an absolute corker of an ending.
I highly recommend Undermajordomo Minor to anyone who likes to laugh out loud when reading. You will love it and you will tell your friends. They will buy it and they will tell their friends until every one has read it and we are all sitting twiddling our thumbs waiting for deWitt’s next novel to come out.