This is Weekend at Bernie's set at a countryside Victorian English boarding school.
Ergo, this is brilliant.
I loved, loved, loved The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place! I need more! Please, Julie Berry, write the continuing adventures of Dull Martha and Stout Alice and Disgraceful Mary Jane! The level of irreverence and hilarity is at the St. Trinian's mark, which is a film that I think is woefully underrated and relatively unknown outside the UK. More Rupert Everett in drag trading one-liners with Colin Firth please and thank you.
Sunday meals at St. Ethelreda's School for Girls are always prepared by the students, but never enjoyed by them. Instead, fresh chops from the butcher and all of their trappings feed the thoroughly unpleasant headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and any guests she may happen to receive. On this particular Sunday, she is dining with her repulsive leech of a brother, Mr. Godding, when something quite unexpected happens: Mrs. Plackett stops talking and dies. Right there, at the table! For shame. Hasn't she any manners? And then, to make things worse, Mr. Godding keels over right next to her.
The girls of St. Ethelreda's are horrified. What are they to do with the bodies?
Yes, you heard me correctly: their first inclination was not to ring the constable. Rather, Smooth Kitty wonders if, this once, they could have their freedom. Freedom from the homes they were sent away from to lodge at this establishment of dubious repute. They might get caught, but when else will such an opportunity come around again?
Right. The bodies. Bodies are heavy. As the teen girls tug, lug, and push the corpses into the house, they're startled by the ringing of the front doorbell.
Mrs. Plackett had planned a surprise birthday party for her dear (departed) brother, and she invited pretty much the entire village. Smooth Kitty's fast-talking skills are put to the test as she distracts the tipple-happy parson, deftly seats the aged Admiral, and placates the querulous town gossip. Well, perhaps "placate" is a poor description. Dull Martha comes to the rescue and galumphs directly into Miss Nosy Parker, causing her to sprain her ankle. Sometimes covering up the untimely demise of your headmistress can be a contact sport.
One of the girls ends up wedged in a cupboard with the stiffening body of Mr. Godding, while the other girls have managed to roll Mrs. Plackett's body into her bed for a very deep sleep.
And then the doctor shows up.
As it turns out, Stout Alice possesses some mean acting chops. A bit of dim lighting, a silly nightcap, and Alice fools everyone because they see what they expect to see: the loud, opinionated Mrs. Plackett. Meanwhile, Pocked Louise, encouraged by her uncle to pursue her interest in science, has a makeshift laboratory set up and tests for poison. Victorian girls of STEM? I'll take it!
Many readers disliked that each character was almost always introduced with her individual sobriquet: Disgraceful Mary Jane, Dour Elinor, Pocked Louise, etc. I enjoyed it. The author carried the conceit through admirably, instead of wimping out a third of the way in. It's very atmospheric, in its way, like when you're reading a classic novel and someone is called "Crazy Jerry" or "Dear Mrs. Swinbourne," or even "Bootstrap Bill Turner" (NOT FROM A NOVEL--I KNOW!). Perhaps these ladies are going off to be pirates?
Anyway. The trick is that none of the girls operate within the realm of their nicknames. Pocked Louise's pockmarks matter not a bit once she figures out what the poison was. Who cares if Stout Alice doesn't fit societal norms of wasp-waistedness since she is the one maintaining the illusion that Mrs. Plackett is not buried in the back yard until a pile of manure topped with a cherry tree sapling! Smooth Kitty is often at a loss for words, and Dour Elinor can be quite a good cook.
This is a book of incredible mayhem. It's practically Wodehouseian in the frenetic antics of the girls. Think ... Arsenic and Old Lace, without the charms of Cary Grant (le sigh) but making up for it in awesome girl characters. Berry charms with the sweet little relationships that develop, and the plot never lets up steam. This is one heck of a ride, and you need to go get this book and take it. Right now. Unless you hate having fun, in which case, may I suggest a nice Philip Roth novel?