Book Review: The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennett

The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennett is the first book in a highly original and delightfully clever crime series in which Queen Elizabeth II secretly solves crimes while carrying out her royal duties. 

April 2016: Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday is fast approaching, and she intends to celebrate it at Windsor, the most beloved of her estates. There will be plenty of public appearances and parties to navigate, of course, and a visit from President and Mrs. Obama. But after half a century on the throne, the Queen knows how to handle everything with aplomb.

Then, just days before her birthday, at a dine and sleep party, one of her guests turns up dead. A terribly young, talented, and handsome pianist of Russian extraction.

“When you broke the news earlier. You were trying to spare me. Don’t.”

 

Sir Simon swallowed. He knew exactly what he had been trying to spare his aged sovereign. But the Boss was the Boss. He coughed.

 

“He was naked, ma’am. When he was found.”

 

“Yes?” The Queen peered at him. She pictured a fit young man lying nude in bed under the covers. Why would this be unusual? Philip in his youth was known to spurn pajamas.

 

Sir Simon peered back. It took a while to realize she didn’t see this as odd. She needed more; he girded his loins.

 

“Um, naked, except for a purple dressing gown. By whose cord, most unfortunately…” He trailed off. He couldn’t do it. The woman would be ninety in a fortnight.

 

Her stare resolved sharply as she grasped his meaning.

 

“Do you mean to say, he was hanging by the cord?”

 

“Yes, ma’am. Most tragically. In a cupboard.”

 

“A cupboard?”

 

“Strictly speaking, a wardrobe.”

 

“Well.” There was a brief silence while they both tried to picture the scene and wished they hadn’t.

Immediately, the head of MI5 decides the death is the work of Putin and secret Russian assassins in deep cover at Windsor, planted years in advance. The Queen just as quickly knows this to be complete hogwash; the pianist, barely out of university, was in his 20s, a last-minute addition to the party, had no strong ties to Russia, and knew only one other person at the gathering. And the idea that one of the Windsor staff is a sleeper agent—she’s certain something else is at work here.

But she also knows she can’t go about telling the head of MI5 how to do his job—at least, not directly and bluntly to his face—so she goes about her own investigation most delicately, calling upon the services of her assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi.

Rozie is initially flummoxed that the Boss herself is asking for her help. She’s still trying to wrap her head around her whirlwind career advancement, from service in the Royal Horse Artillery to a high-profile bank position and now to the Queen’s personal service. But as she soon discovers, investigating is just another part of the job for the assistant private secretary.

An enigmatic smile stole across Aileen’s face. Then she put down her glass and fixed Rozie with a steady gaze. “The Queen solves mysteries. She solved the first one when she was twelve or thirteen, so the story goes. On her own. She sees things other people don’t see—often because they’re all looking at her. She knows so much about so many things. She’s got an eagle eye, a nose for bullshit, and a fabulous memory. Her staff should trust her more. People like Sir Simon, I mean…

 

“They should trust her. But they don’t. She’s one of the most powerful women in the world, supposedly, but she spends her whole bloody time having to listen to them and they don’t listen back. It drives her bonkers. I mean, she grew up with it. She was a girl in the thirties; male domination was normal. God, even now I bet you get it, too, but at least we know it’s wrong. She’s had to work out for herself how good she is, what she can do. And what she can do is notice things. See when something’s off. Find out why. Unpick the problem. She’s a bit of a genius at it, actually. But she needs help.”

 

“Female help,” Rozie said thoughtfully.

 

“Uh-huh. The help of someone who isn’t trying to constantly buck her up. Someone discreet. A listener. Our help.”

 

Aileen reached for the thin stem of her glass and lifted it until the bowl glowed bloodred in the candlelight. “Here’s to the real queen of crime.”

 

Rozie lifted hers, too. “The real queen of crime.”

 

“God save her.”

As more bodies drop and with MI5’s investigation sewing paranoia in the Queen’s household, having a dire effect on some of her most trusted servants, H.R.H. and Rozie have to move quickly to uncover the real culprit behind the pianist’s peculiar death—all while balancing a packed social schedule.

The Windsor Knot is as much a love letter to Queen Elizabeth as it is a mystery. Bennett clearly admires Elizabeth a great deal and imbues the fictional version of her with quite a bit of charm, warmth, and clever shrewdness. It’s great fun to see the nonagenarian weave the clues together while her police service spins its wheels on silly assumptions and then drop the essential details into the correct ears at just the right moment. And her “voice” throughout the novel is that of a flesh-and-blood woman, reminding us that while her larger life may be incredible to us non-royals, she still has a familiar inner life we can connect to.

Bennett’s prose rings with personality and color; while the Queen is the primary focus, the supporting characters—especially Rozie but even the most tertiary of figures who pop in for a single line or two—all spring from the page in a vibrant and memorable fashion.

There’s also a powerful sense of place and time in the various settings, from the old grandeur of Windsor to the packed confines of a subway carriage. Bennett did some thorough research into the actual events of this particular April and found clever ways to slip a fictional murder investigation in between the factual history. Not at all an easy task, but she pulls it off with panache.

If The Windsor Knot has a flaw, it’s that there’s no way the reader can untangle the mystery for themselves with the clues provided, so serious armchair sleuths may be disappointed by the final reveal.

But, ultimately, the “whodunit” portion of this mystery isn’t the real draw; no, it’s the time we spend in the Queen’s head and in her company, watching her outsmart everyone else without ever letting it slip that she’s investigating at all. Like a crown-wearing Miss Marple, she proves that old ladies can still have plenty of fire, wit, and determination. And with The Windsor Knot, Bennett has delivered a fun and charming story sure to delight Anglophiles and fans of The Crown.

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