THE PIGEON PIE MYSTERY
By Julia Stuart
Doubleday, $24,95, 336 pages
THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95. 336 pages
It may be difficult to believe, but there still are two final residents in the remaining grace-and-favor apartments in London's Hampton Court, courtesy of the queen. And, perhaps, they still are coping with ghosts such as Queen Catherine Howard running screaming through the gallery of the palace before her head was cut off by King Henry VIII a few centuries ago.
The enchanting aspect of Julia Stuart's confections of books about English legends is that she does her historical homework, then tarts it up to poke the aristocracy in the eye. So it is appropriate that who poisoned the pigeon pie at a Hampton Court party attended by eccentric aristocrats should be a centerpiece of this wacky tale of the lovely Indian Princess Alexandrina, otherwise known as Mink.
Left with only one servant, Pooki, who has unusually large feet, Mink has been surviving in a palatial London residence without paying any rent or bills left by her late father, the maharaja of Brindor, who was deposed by the British and died a scandalous death in an East End opium den, making love to a female servant who cleaned boots and knives. The ensuing scandal robs Mink of her intended lover as well as her lavish lifestyle, derived from the financial aid of the British government. So she is grateful when Queen Victoria sends a letter offering a grace-and-favor apartment (six bedrooms and a swarm of beetles but no bathroom) in Hampton Court, one of Henry VIII's favorite hangouts.
Poor Mink has been awash in scandal because of the evidence at the coroner's inquiry into her father's undignified demise. His companion added to the uproar by reflecting her thoughts as he died that he "shouldn't have eaten so much shirt-sleeve pudding."
This leads to the opening of a pub called the Boots and Knives next door to the opium den, and a popular music-hall song about the maharaja's love for "ladies and pies." However, Hampton Court takes Mink's mind off her personal troubles because she finds herself in the midst of a bunch of acrimonious duchesses as well as the lewd Maj. Gen. George Bagshot, and a bicycling practitioner, Dr. Henderson. There is the Dowager Lady Montfort Bebb, whose claim to fame is being held hostage in Afghanistan, and there is the Countess of Bessington, a widow with an addiction to ferns.
There also is Lady Beatrice Fisher, who wears "exuberant" hats, dotes on doves and says her apartments are haunted by Jane Seymour, who bore Henry VIII a son before expiring, probably from exhaustion. There is William Sheepshanks, keeper of The Maze in which visitors are constantly lost, and Thomas Trout, keeper of the Great Vine, who battles against rats that seek to harm his charge.
Gen. Bagshot is the victim of the pigeon-pie poisoning, and Pooki, Mink's maid, is a suspect, especially after she repeats to the police a rumor that the general had killed Lady Beatrice's doves and sold them to the butcher, who resold them as pigeons.
Police Inspector Gubby bases his suspicions of Pooki on the fact that she has flypapers containing arsenic in her bonnet box. Mink explains that they were meant to ward off moths and sets out to find who really did it. With its elaborate descriptions of the living arrangements at Hampton Court, and a hilariously sprawling plot, this book would brighten a long plane flight or fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.
In "The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds," the man who invented the Number One Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana has returned to Scotland to report on the eternal and often interminable philosophizing of Isabel Dalhousie. Her being a professional philosopher really is no excuse.
Alexander McCall Smith is more than a prolific writer. He bounces from Botswana and the delightful character of Precious Ramotswe to other series starring a precocious 6-year-old, an even more precocious dog and, in this case, the verbose Isabel. Mr. McCall Smith is a delightful writer, and the philosophy he espouses clearly comes from his own head, so it is impossible to complain about him.
However, the character of Isabel would be much more entertaining if she didn't take herself quite so seriously. There is no topic she will not analyze to death. Her musician husband, Jamie, is a man of great charm and even more patience, and he suggests only gently that she doesn't have to be so determined to nitpick every problem that raises its head -- including whether their nursemaid is endangering their 3-year-old son's development by teaching him how to count. However, this is only the tip of the current Isabel iceberg as she plunges into an investigation of who stole a painting from a man she doesn't know. What makes it odder is that she does this at the request of a woman she dislikes.
Of course, she solves the mystery, but what she seems to worry about least is the magazine she edits, and it is fortunate that her income appears to be adequate to finance her fancies. But it would make her more interesting if she were capable of laughing at herself. Fun and Isabel do not seem to be compatible.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.