Monday, August 17, 2015

P. J. Brackston's Once Upon a Crime, a fairy-tale spoof with personality

A fairy tale sequel and crime novel with a light, humorous twist, P. J. Brackston’s Once Upon a Crime is hard to pigeonhole. For her premise, she takes the character of Gretel, first made famous by her childhood appearance with brother Hansel in the witchy Brothers Grimm story, ages her a few decades, and installs her as a private detective in 18th-century Bavaria.

I’ve always gone for novels taking place in historical Germany, but must say up front that the setting here is quasi-historical at best. There are many willful anachronisms – waxing appointments, for example, and vodka martinis – plus a host of imaginary creatures, but the wacky combination of elements is part of its charm. When I heard the name of the place where Gretel hangs her shingle, the sleepy backwater of “Gesternstadt,” I was intrigued enough to read it.

Gretel’s a hefty gal who loves her Weisswurst and a good beer or two, and her perpetually inebriated brother Hans, who has never truly recovered from their childhood trauma, contributes to the household by cooking delicious meals. When Gretel agrees to help Frau Hapsburg locate her three kidnapped cats, she gets drawn into a web of danger involving a treacherous princess, a troll (the lives-under-a-bridge type) who has the hots for voluptuous women, and several unexplained murders. She also discovers that the fiery destruction of a local carriage-maker’s workshop is related to her case.

The storyline took a while to grab me.  While I like a well-done spoof, I prefer historical fantasy novels with more actual history than this one offered. However, Gretel’s smart and sarcastic attitude soon won me over. A fashionista who appreciates the finer things in life, Gretel also detests the innate twee-ness of the world she’s forced to live in. I confess to being so distracted by all the amusing whimsy that I neglected to pay attention to the clues in what turned out to be a pretty decent mystery.

Historical purists may want to steer clear, but for those looking for an entertaining diversion from more serious fare, this could be just the ticket.

Once Upon a Crime was published by Pegasus in hardcover in July ($24.95/C$27.95, 245pp). The author also writes historical fiction with a mystical spin as Paula Brackston.


  1. This sounds so different and unusual.
    I too prefer historical fantasy that leans more on the historical side, but the idea is so unusual - and I love fairy tale retellins! - that I might try it :-)

    1. It is very clever, and Gretel's sarcastic attitude is great :)