Mrs. Cook has seen many generations of the Jones family grow up. She has watched over them and become a part of the Jones family herself. These days she walks a little slower. After an unfortunate incident with one of the Tower ravens, Mrs. Cook has taken to staying indoors. Her age of 180 is impressive and catches the attention of the Queen, which sets in motion the whole story. Mrs. Cook is also a tortoise and the story is the The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart.
Set in contemporary London, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise is an exploration of the London Tower and one maudlin man, Balthazar Jones, whose duties are about to change dramatically. He is a member of the elite Beefeaters. Officially titled the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, the Beefeaters are a tourist attraction that once guarded the Tower of London. The Queen has decided to open a new royal menagerie at the London Tower to display the exotic animals given to her as gifts by leaders of foreign nations. Balthazar’s ability to keep the elderly tortoise Mrs. Cook alive has convinced the Queen that he is the ideal zookeeper.
There are two aspects of this novel that I loved: the conflicting personalities of the Tower’s residents and the delightful personalities of the animals. Balthazar is lovable in his inability to focus on pick pockets and other threats to the Tower. He is constantly distracted by the rain and his own thoughts. Every failure made me want to reach out and hug the poor guy. His Greek wife, Hebe, works at the London Underground Lost Property Office. Hebe is not interested in the rain, she is interested in the mystery behind each item turned in: books, wigs, an urn. Who would leave these things on the tube? She is delighted whenever a lost item is reunited with its worrisome owner. Her co-worker, Valerie, is lonely and consequently, obsessed with the mid-morning snack of elevenses.
The Tower would not be complete with it’s religious figure. The Chaplin is a man of the cloth, but his duties are confusing to the residents of the Tower, who often turn to him for confession. He can only reply, you might want to see the Catholics up the road. The lonely Chaplin yearns for love and a family, but he is also a failure. He finds relief and refuge in writing sermons and novels of all genres.
Then there is the Ravenmaster. He is jealous of the menagerie distracting visitors from the famous ravens he looks after. His awkward relationship with Balthazar resulting from the attack of Mrs. Cook, fuels his desire to see the menagerie a failure.
The animals were unfamiliar, so I spent some time researching creatures like the zorillas. Silly to admit, but I wanted to confirm that the animals mentioned were real and not fictional. Their personalities made me laugh and I think the residents learned a valuable lesson about handling exotic animals.
When I first read the word “Beefeaters,” I had no reference to what this could mean. I hadn’t heard of the Tower of London and I was unfamiliar with its history. Luckily, the author explained all I needed to know. I felt like I was getting a history lesson in British landmarks, specifically the Tower, the ghosts inhabiting it, and the surrounding river. The spirits are mischievous and have their own agendas, much like the ghosts in the Harry Potter series. I was getting an exclusive look into the castle and the London Underground Lost Property Office. Do these stories have some truth to them or not?
This is the second novel I’ve read by Julia Stuart and I absolutely loved it. I did have some difficulty understanding the slang and had to look up phrases like “elevenses,” which aren’t as common here in the states. I thoroughly enjoyed this book almost as much as her previous novel, The Pigeon Pie Mystery. These two novels make the perfect Anglophile starter kit.