I don’t often use this phrase as a descriptor but I can’t think of a single more appropriate word for it, sooo at the risk of sounding like an owl, this book was a real hoot! 🦉 The wordy title alone ought to tip you off about what sort of book this is: Horton Halfpott and the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor OR The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset.
This middle-grade novella clocking in at just over 200 pages is A Series of Unfortunate Events meets Harry Potter liberally peppered with Dickensian characters and his brand of sharp humor. Except in this case our hapless protagonist isn’t a penniless orphan. Nor is he actually a wizard, or targeted by a failed actor hell-bent on stealing his fortune. Instead, young Horton Halfpott is a penniless kitchen boy employed at Smugwick Manor, up to his eyeballs in washing dirty dishes on a daily basis…that is when he’s not gathering precious logs of firewood or getting whacked in the head over and over by the slap-happy cook Miss Neversly and her trusty wooden spoon. His large family and ailing father live quite a distance away, but the ever devoted son, Horton puts them first time and time again:
Every Sunday morning Horton ran down the road, through the village, across ten fields and three streams, to the cottage where his family lived. He gave his mother the single copper penny he had earned. She smiled and put it in a little tin can.
Horton Halfpott reads very much like a bed-time story. The narrative voice is cheeky and conversational and quite reminiscent of William Goldman’s narrator in The Princess Bride. Author, Tom Angleberger addresses the reader in just about every chapter, and almost always has something snarky to say. Horton Halfpott takes a playful, taunting look at snobby old money British families in the late 1800s –one of my absolute favourite time periods to read about in young adult and middle grade novels– and some of the reigning customs at the time.
Kitchen boys often turn out to be plucky little heroes with hearts of gold and a grim determination to see justice done.
The Smugwick estate is populated by a cast of many characters including servants Chef Loafburton, Old Crotty, Footman Jennings and the Snooping Stableboys– Blight and Blemish who aspire to be promoted to butlers one day and a young lad, Bump, who’s Horton’s best friend and about his same age. In the beginning of each chapter there’s a scribbly, slap-stick drawing of whatever character is mostly featured at that point in time in the story. No these crude and squiggly illustrations aren’t graphic novel caliber and they won’t be winning any art awards, but they add an odd-duck, quirky touch to the look of Horton Halfpott. As an adult they crack me up and make me smile, so I can only imagine children reading this would see them as a real riot!
The Luggertucks themselves are present too of course! There’s the mischief making, ever evil-tempered spoilt brat and teenaged Luther. Then his mother and lady of the house M’Lady Luggertuck with her extensive collection of powdered wigs, ugly furniture and constant complaining and bitterness, as well as his grandfather the learned and veteran explorer Old Lord Emberley who also happens to be Horton’s friend and one of his only allies in the household– secretly sharing his precious library with the boy. In many ways this enormous cast is like that of a play, and I could easily see this being adapted to the stage!
Horton Halfpott is a comedy of manners and a mystery that any fan of the BBC or quirky, original stories will be keen on! The theft of the Luggertuck’s greatest treasure, the Luggertuck Lump: “Possibly the world’s largest diamond and certainly the ugliest” throws M’Lady into a right fit, and she sends for the Greatest Detective in ALL of England: Portnoy St. Pomfrey! A master big-bellied sleuth with an even bigger appetite who drives around a carriage that was once a Sultan’s Royal Outhouse! Ha! The sticky-fingered culprit isn’t caught quite quickly enough and soon other valuable objects get snatched like M’Lady’s favourite towering twenty-three pound wig, house guest Colonel Sitwell’s monocle, and a bust of Napoleon.
But wait! There’s more! Another thread in the story involves love! In particular, Luther’s idiotic cousin Montgomery Crimcramper, who’s holidaying at the Luggertuck Manor in an effort to woo Miss Celia Sylvan-Smythe, a girl he’s smitten with, but who couldn’t give one whit about him. Greedy Luther, hearing of the enormous fortune Celia is set to inherit, instantly goes about trying to sabotage his cousin Montgomery’s efforts, to get the girl for himself. Three guesses how that ends. 😉 And I’d be in remiss not to mention a some other antagonists in Horton Halfpott, a band of Shipless Pirates! These scallywags have an agreement with Luther, one that, spoiler alert: is positively No Good! As Captain Hook would say in Peter Pan, “Bad form!”
Horton Halfpott is a silly satire brimming with heart. With it’s over the top punchy, off-beat, and quirky characters galore and a twisty, turny ribbon of mysteries woven throughout the plot, this a wickedly good tale that can be bolted down in one sitting. An absolute delight from the very first page to the last, this splendid story is a must-read for anyone who loves a good laugh, whodunits, Monty Python skits, the Robin Hood Men in Tights movie starring Cary Elwes, and Charles Dickens!