Castles, thieves, and a Very Big Hole: A review of 'Undermajordomo Minor' by Patrick deWitt

Undermajordomo Minor  (House of Anansi Press)

Undermajordomo Minor (House of Anansi Press)

Lucien (Lucy) Minor is hopeless. In his hometown of Bury, he has no job, no friends, and no future. When he is offered the position of Undermajordomo (whatever that means) at the Castle Von Aux, Lucy grabs at the chance to change his life. As his train barely crosses city borders, Lucy begins to question his previous decision when he finds that a man named Memel, and his child assistant, Mewe, have already robbed him. And so begins what Lucy describes as his “era of unluckiness.”

Despite their questionable character, Memel and Mewe offer to guide Lucy to the castle, and, seeing no other option, Lucy accepts, all the while thinking about the absurdity of his situation—“I am alone with two bloodthirsty thieves. We are walking into an anonymous field of pale snow.”

Lucy does finally make it to the Castle Von Aux alive, and begins his new job. Despite not having actually met Baron Von Aux himself (nobody knows where he is), he completes his tasks each day (as laid out by the castle’s Majordomo, Mr. Olderglough) and explores the village in his free time. Lucy becomes quick and close friends with the thieves Memel and Mewe, and soon finds himself falling in love with Memel’s daughter, Klara.

As Lucy tries to navigate the oddities of the village and castle, he learns tales that pique his interest (the Very Big Hole, for one), and some things that he wishes he hadn’t (concerning the importance of tarts at royal “dinner parties”). In accepting his position as Undermajordomo, he could not have fathomed the debauchery that was to come, at least not until he met the inhabitants of the castle:

“I shall be standing behind the door,” said Mr. Olderglough rather proudly.
“And what will you be doing there?”
“I will be waiting for the Baron to walk into the room.”
“And what will commence when this occurs, sir?”
“I will step away from my hiding place and tap my employer atop the skull with a stubby switch of birch wood.”
“Is that so?”
“You may count on it, boy”

Canadian Patrick deWitt’s third novel, Undermajordomo Minor, follows his Governor General’s Literary Award and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winner, The Sisters Brothers, but it is a superior novel in terms of its plot and set of quirky characters. In Undermajordomo Minor, deWitt’s mastery of black comedy and deadpan humour shines. This witty tale of love, mystery, and adventure is enthralling, original, and, above all, completely ridiculous. deWitt’s writing takes the classic elements present in folktales and rearranges them into a chain of unlikely events that still manage to perpetuate an important moral—if you want something, go get it.