This is a title I have had my eye on for a while, so when I received a copy as a birthday present, I decided to give it go.
‘The morning after a dinner party at Windsor Castle, eighty-nine-year-old Queen Elizabeth is shocked to discover that one of her guests has been found murdered in his room, with a rope around his neck. When the police begin to suspect her loyal servants, Her Majesty knows they are looking in the wrong place. For the Queen has been living an extraordinary double life ever since her coronation. Away from the public eye, she has a brilliant knack for solving crimes. With her household’s happiness on the line, her secret must not get out. Can the Queen and her trusted secretary Rozie catch the killer, without getting caught themselves?’
Having the Queen as a sleuth is a tantalising and novel premise, yet it is a path laden with risk as well as reward for the writer who decides to take that trail. Going into this read I was interested to see how the Queen’s inner world would be depicted, as well as how the author would get her into a position where sleuthing was a plausible option.
As a reader, we are used to narratives in which we have access to the amateur sleuth’s train of thought, yet in this book the choice of sleuth; a real person and royalty to boot, makes this a challenging prospect. I was wondering how much the author would be able to be accurate about the Queen’s real personality? But equally how much should the author stick to reality? I would be interested to know what sort of research the writer took in that respect.
I felt the mystery opened well, with the Queen taking a morning ride, as it gives the reader an opportunity to get a sense of the character’s inner self. The author balances the seemingly contradicting notions that the Queen is and is not detached/separate from ordinary life. In the novel the Queen appears to straddle these elements well. For example, in the below passage, the expected royal tone is there, yet the ideas encompassed are ones we can identify with:
‘Overhead, a dull roar of engines drowned out the birdsong. From her saddle, the Queen heard a high-pitched whine and glanced up to see an Airbus A330 coming into land. When one lives on a Heathrow flight path one becomes an expert plane-spotter, though knowing all the current passenger jets by silhouette alone was a reluctant party trick.’
Another good example occurs when the Queen thinks back over the origins of the dine and sleep event taking place at Windsor Castle. The event was put on primarily for Prince Charles and the Queen recalls that: ‘Charles beamed with gratitude (though he and Camilla had departed after coffee for an event at Highgrove the following day, leaving her feeling like the mother of a university student who comes home merely so that one can do his laundry.’
In other sections of the story this approach is contrasted with moments where the Queen’s unusual position in life creates a different outlook. For instance, when musing about the recent murder she thinks: ‘To have happened here. At Windsor. In a cupboard. In a purple dressing gown. She didn’t know if she felt more sorry for the castle or the man. It was much more tragic for the poor young pianist, obviously. But she knew the castle better. Knew it like a second skin. It was awful, awful. And after such a wonderful night.’
So what sort of sleuth is the Queen? The author builds up a backstory of the Queen having been a solver of crimes and mysteries since she was 12 years old and that over the years she has reached out to various members of staff and friends for technical or professional information and to do her legwork. Rozie is the main character in this book who undertakes the Queen’s legwork and as such she provides another narrative focus. I reflected a lot on the Queen’s role as a sleuth whilst reading this tale and I concluded that she is more in the mould of Mycroft Holmes. This brings us back to my opinion that having the Queen as a sleuth is both risky and rewarding. She is a difficult choice of sleuth, as she can’t take time off from her normal duties and nor can she go off and interview all and sundry about their possible involvement in the case. Keeping things from the newspapers is an ever-present concern in the story and it does tie the writer’s hands in a way, meaning that the Queen mostly operates through others. Moreover, when she does begin to form theories and have answers she has to subtly fed the ideas to the professionals solving the case rather than straight forwardly tell them what she has learnt.
For me this has some consequences for the reading experience. Firstly, I think it negatively impacted the pacing of the mystery, especially after the opening third. Working through others does slow the Queen down and it also means that a lot of the dots, so to speak, are joined up behind the scenes. As the book unfolds the Queen becomes less present on the page than I would have liked, and it also leads to her final solution giving her appearance of being a bit too omniscient. However, one plus of the Queen not overtly revealing the answer to the case is that it provides a comedic scene at the end where a self-important character ‘mansplains’ her own solution to her. Reminiscent of some of the Miss Marple stories, the Queen is often underestimated by some of the investigating male figures due to her age.