Mysteries with the Royal Touch
By Janet WebbMay 5, 2023
King Charles III’s coronation takes place on Saturday 6 May 2023 at Westminster Abbey in London. To celebrate this regal moment, aficionados of mysteries can explore how royals became part of the plot, with books encompassing the reigns of Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II.
In Jennifer Ashley’s Death Below Stairs, readers are introduced to Kat Holloway, a gifted female cook, respected above and below stairs in the aristocratic household where she works. When Sinead, her young Irish kitchen assistant is brutally killed, her face “rendered a bloody pulp,” Kat is convinced, from the viciousness of the attack, that the attacker was a man.
It is noteworthy that Kat’s skill and precision as a cook and the original techniques she employs are put at the service of Daniel McAdam as he turns to sleuthing for, “Kat and Daniel discover that the household murder was the barest tip of a plot rife with danger and treason—one that’s a threat to Queen Victoria herself.” The tip-off to the plot to assassinate the Queen was the discovery of a ripped piece of paper. Like all good cooks, Kat can read, something she learned at grammar school and later from the “first cook who’d apprenticed” her. How else could she understand, “the nuances of recipes or read them out correctly?
Daniel suspects the Fenians (an Irish terrorist group) are behind the plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. Victoria had a long reign: Death Below Stairs takes place twenty years after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Mr. Davis, the butler, is quite caustic about the reclusive queen, saying “Calls herself Countess of Balmoral when she wants to go incognito—and then takes her own special train, I ask you.”
In Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry, 32nd in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, aging Queen Victoria herself commands Thomas Pitt, the commander of Special Branch, to solve a mystery close to the throne. “The monarch, who is nearing the end of her life, asks Pitt to probe the untimely death of Sir John Halberd, an old and trusted friend of her majesty, whom she had asked to investigate Alan Kendrick, a new adviser to her son, the Prince of Wales.” It turns out that Halberd’s death was more than untimely, he was murdered.
Queen Mary tasks her young kinswoman, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, with finding out what on earth David—as the Prince of Wales is known within the family—is doing in Europe in On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen. “Lady Georgiana—informally known as “royal sleuth Georgie Rannoch”—is the perfect choice to undertake a delicate assignment for Her Majesty Queen Mary since she is a member of the British Royal family, albeit frightfully remotely.” Georgie is desperate to visit Italy to be by the side of Belinda, one of her oldest friends, while Belinda awaits the birth of her out-of-wedlock baby but as usual, Georgie is out of funds. Queen Mary underwrites Georgie’s trip on the understanding that she “attends a house party in the Italian Lake Country. The Prince of Wales AND the dreadful Mrs. Simpson have been invited, and Her Majesty is anxious to thwart a possible secret wedding.” Like so many stories where the royals appear, there’s a verisimilitude to the plot. Set in the 1930s, On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service is the 11th book in Bowen’s delightful Royal Spyness series.
Betraying The Crown by T.P. Fielden (a pseudonym for royal journalist Christopher Wilson) takes place in the aftermath of the Abdication of King Edward VIII. An aristocrat is found murdered at Fort Belvedere, once home to the Duke of Windsor. Even in exile, David is a continuing problem for the royals. As I wrote in my review, “The House of Windsor is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year historians, novelists, royal reporters, and journalists revisit the 1936 Abdication of King Edward VIII and the ripple effect caused by that seismic event. Has much changed since then? Look at the tagline of Betraying the Crown: “Intrigue and scandal threaten to rock the monarchy in wartime Britain.” Swap out wartime for present-day England and some might see parallels. Some shade is thrown at Queen Elizabeth, consort to George VI: during a conversation between courtier hero Guy Harford and Ronnie, an elderly courtier, Ronnie says the Queen is put off by the royal airs put on by her sister-in-law Marina, the Duchess of Kent, who considers herself “more royal than the royals in Buck House.”
‘Is she? More royal?
‘The granddaughter of kings, twice over. Our Queen isn’t – just the daughter of a Scotch Earl, and how many of those are there? Two a penny!’
Slightly raffish Guy Harford, “artist, Palace courtier, reluctant spy” makes an entertaining and somewhat jaundiced sleuth. Fans of the first season of the Netflix series The Crown will enjoy Betraying the Crown.
A Royal Affair is the second in Allison Montclair’s Sparks & Bainbridge mystery series. Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge founded The Right Sort Marriage Bureau in the aftermath of World War II. Their mission is to encourage felicitous matches which lead to marriage. Why would Princess Elizabeth, heir presumptive to the British throne, want to engage their services? Elizabeth is madly in love with Prince Philip of Greece but there are some in the Royal Household who believe that his past makes him an unsuitable suitor for a royal princess. The princess engages them to find out the truth behind the rumors so that she and Philip can become engaged. A Royal Affair is a very engaging book, grounded in impeccable historical research.
I enjoyed The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennett, “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.” The setting: Windsor Castle, April 2016, in the days before Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebrations. Unfortunately, a guest “turns up dead.” Well, one can’t have a mystery marring a royal occasion, can one?
God Save King Charles III, and enjoy some mysteries with a royal touch!