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Historical Mysteries

The Palace Tiger, Barbara Cleverly, Delta, $13.00.

I wish there was a section in bookstores called "Fairy Tales for Grownups" - it might be sparsely populated but it would certainly contain the books written by Barbara Cleverly, set in India of the 1920's. A "fairy tale" should be a wonderful story, engaging and sometimes magical; and it shouldn't have much to do with the real world. These are the kind of stories we all enjoyed as children - the Mary Poppins and Narnia stories spring to mind - that for some reason, adults are no longer supposed to be interested in. As evidenced by the number of adults enjoying Harry Potter, however, I don't think the desire for a good story, well told, ever goes away. Some other mysteries that might belong in this category would be Nancy Atherton's wonderful Aunt Dimity's Death and Aunt Dimity and the Duke; and Dorothy Cannell's classic The Thin Woman. Unlike those books, though, which involve a woman finding a new and wonderful life, Cleverly's books are just great stories. Her main character, Detective Joe Sandilands of Scotland Yard, is handsome and smart, and he's there to advance the story. He's a hero, but what the reader really wants in these books is to read about doors built so high an elephant could pass through them, or a woman known for her collection of rubies, or a pilot so daring he can take his plane up in a spiral and sprinkle glitter to the watching people on the ground below. These are all elements of Cleverly's wonderful new novel, The Palace Tiger. There are also snakes, maharajas, illnesses and murders, panthers with too many teeth, and of course, a tiger hunt to wrap things up. The atmosphere Sandilands is plunged into in this novel is seething with undercurrents, and it's his job to sort all of it out.

He's dispatched by his friend, Governor Sir George Jardine, to unofficially look into the deaths of two of the Maharaja of RanipurÔ's sons; his cover reason for going is to help hunt down a tiger that's been picking off villagers. So while the book ends with the tiger hunt it's actually the story of Joe learning the palace ins and outs as he tries to determine - with no official standing - why the maharaja's sons have died, both in bizarre situations. Joe quickly makes friends with the youngest son, the apparent heir, who, feeling his life is in danger can be at rest no place in the palace, but for reasons of his own feels safe around Joe. Of course the palace ins and outs are completely fascinating - especially the culture of the wives who live their lives more or less "offstage" in what amounts to a virtual, though gilded, prison for them. Of course, a group of women living together jockey for power in the most insidious ways, and Cleverly's penetrating look at their world is one that would make any woman glad to be born in the later part of the twentieth century.

As with any Cleverly novel, there are layers within layers - the glittering facade of jeweled wealth hides the mind of a Maharaja who knows making money on the stock market might be more profitable; the tiger on the loose is responsible for many deaths, but not all deaths; and while the stock market may beckon, a snake or a panther is still an effective weapon. The uncoiling of this story is a delicious one, and for any fan of India, elephants, Maharajas or simply wonderful stories, this book is an absolute do not miss. Cleverly gets better and better with each novel - I can't wait for the next installment in the ongoing saga of Joe Sandilands of Scotland Yard.

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