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Books of the Week: The Pigeon Pie Mystery and The Thing About Thugs
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we can't get enough of two unusual mysteries set in Victorian England:
The Pigeon Pie Mystery
By Julia Stuart
This mystery is a delicate yet kooky romp. At the book's heart is Mink, formally known as Her Highness Princess Alexandrina, daughter of the Maharaja of Prindur. Raised by her exiled father in England, the princess finds herself destitute upon his death thanks to his taste for luxury. Luckily, Queen Victoria offers her a "grace-and-favor" home at Hampton Court Palace, a refuge for the genteel-and-cash-strapped. Mink moves to a house near the castle's maze, a popular tourist attraction. Before long, though, she's drawn into a maze of a different kind: the investigation of the death of one of the palace's least popular residents, General Bagshot, who appears to have died from eating a poisoned pigeon pie. But as Mink investigates, she finds something surprising: a group of people filled less with malice than with a desire for love in a world that offers little of it. Their longing gives them a zany wisdom that helps Mink find her own place in the world. As one character admonishes, it's a poor choice to "fall into the fatal habit of thinking that if you were somewhere different, life would be so much better. There are moths everywhere." And it's true: There are moths—and many other things that eat away at clothes and souls—no matter where one looks in Mink's world. Every life is its own maze, and escape is not the solution. Instead, it's best to find a little place for oneself within the tall, impenetrable hedges.
The Thing About Thugs
Amir Ali has changed his identity to escape from a family feud in India. He claims to be an ex-Thug, a former member of the (made-up) Thuggee cult, which murders people for the sake of killing. As such, he allows himself to be "studied" by a phrenologist—a man who researches the so-called science of skulls and how their shape determines character. The phrenologist takes Amir to London to understand how a man with a skull that predisposes him to murder came to be reformed. This facilitates Amir's escape, but it lands him in an even bigger mess. In England, he finds a world replete with racism and a white upper class hell-bent on proving its own superiority through "scientific" means. The only way for him survive is to keep playing into the story of racial superiority that the upper class wishes to promote by showing himself off as a curiosity. Then, when a string of ugly murders takes place, Londoners unite in pointing fingers at Amir the Thug, and Amir's new identity becomes a liability. Who, after all, will believe in the innocence of a "confessed" murderer when they don't know that his story is a lie? As he searches for the real killers, he becomes confused as to who he really is. He wonders, almost obsessively, "Can stories—told by yourself, told by others—turn us into something else?" His saga shifts with every sentence. Will he find the killers stalking London? Will he find himself again? It's hard to know which question you want answered more—both will have you turning pages feverishly. But be warned: If you want a book with a neatly packaged ending, this isn't it. Rather, its elliptical conclusion is proof positive that when it comes to the really big stories, the ones that define who we are, the telling is never over.
Mysteries every thinking woman should read
Beach reads you'll blaze through