Review: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhy Bowen is the 11th Royal Spyness novel, where Lady Georgiana Rannoch must juggle secret missions from the Queen, Darcy, and her mother—but it’s all in a day’s work when you’re 35th in line to the British Crown.

The title of Rhys Bowen’s 11th Royal Spyness mystery, On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, accurately conveys a certain madcap insouciance. And, of course, 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.

When royal sleuth Georgie Rannoch receives a letter from her dearest friend Belinda, who’s in an Italian villa awaiting the birth of her illegitimate baby, she yearns to run to her side. If only she could find a way to get there! But then opportunity presents itself in a most unexpected way—her cousin the queen asks her to attend 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.

The request from the queen comes at a very opportune time since Georgie is at a crossroads in London. She is engaged to the love of her life, but he’s an Irish Roman Catholic, so she is nervous the king and queen may not approve of her marriage. As always, money is tight, particularly since her brother—the duke—and his tight-fisted wife are very parsimonious. Darcy, her fiancé, is on a top-secret assignment, and lastly, she is worried about her old school friend Belinda and wants to get to her side.

As it happens, there couldn’t be a better time to toddle off to Lake Maggiore, near Stresa, because Belinda’s temporary home is in the neighborhood of an aristocratic house party that Queen Mary is anxious that Georgie attend. Who could possibly say no to a request from the wife of the British monarch that her relative join the gathering? How fortunate the hostess, now a countess, is an old “school chum” of Georgie’s, proclaims the Queen.

Oh no. Not another supposed dear friend I had either never heard of or long forgotten about? She had sprung these on me before when she wanted me to do something for her—usually something difficult or unpleasant.

“We were?”

“Well, maybe not bosom friends, as she must be a little older than you, but you were at the school in Switzerland at the same time. Waddell-Walker is the name.”

Ah yes, Camilla Waddell-Walker, or as Belinda referred to her, “Miss Cami-Knickers.” Georgie is legitimately nervous: will the queen want her “to crash the house party and steal some antique for her?” But the reason is both personal and a matter of state. The Prince of Wales and his lady-love, or as the queen phrases it, “a certain American woman I will not name,” are expected to be at the house party. Queen Mary is afraid David, as he is known within the family, plans to secretly marry Mrs. Simpson. Can Georgie be her “eyes and ears on the spot” and report back?

Now that she has gotten her own way, the queen feels “so much better.” Georgie, perhaps not so much.

I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted me to do. If they were actually getting married, I could hardly rush in as they were saying, “Do you know any cause or just impediment why these two may not be joined together in holy matrimony?” and shout out, “He’ll be the head of the Church of England and it forbids divorce and furthermore his mother forbids it.”

Of course, there’s no question that Georgie will undertake a mission for Queen Mary. Eventually, she arrives at her destination and everything goes awry. Perhaps “coffee and a rather sinful-looking pastry” will restore her spirits.

As I was trying not to eat too greedily I heard a laugh that I recognized and I looked up to see the last person I expected to meet. A small dainty person with platinum blond curls poking out from beneath a scarlet pill-box hat. She was wearing scarlet linen trousers and a royal blue jacket. Nobody could have gotten away with this attire but my mother.

It shows that Georgie is truly overwrought that she is actually happy to see “the most self-centered person in the world.” Can it be that her mother and her mother’s most-recent paramour are also guests at the house party by Lake Maggiore? Indeed. In fact, Georgie discovers that David and Mrs. Simpson are not the most alarming guests—there are Nazis!

Who should also appear but Georgie’s fiancé, Darcy, hot on the trail of the secret negotiations (and undercover as a delectable Italian gardener)?

“So you think this is a serious meeting between Hitler’s top chap and Mussolini’s man?”

“I do.”

A thought just occurred to me. “But the Prince of Wales? Where does he come into this?”

Darcy shook his head. “We have no idea. We were as curious as you are when we learned that he was coming here. This isn’t his usual type of hedonistic party with beautiful people. He doesn’t seem to be a close friend of any of the participants. So this is where you can be really helpful to me. I can only overhear snatches of conversation out in the grounds or near open windows. You can overhear whole conversations. Nobody sees you as a threat. You can wander into rooms by mistake, claim to be looking for a missing book in the library.

I went to say “crikey” again but swallowed it back. “You want me to be a real spy,” was what I managed to say.

Yes, Lady Georgiana, your country is in need of your service as a “real spy.” The turbulent events leading up to the Second World War make a fascinating backdrop to the 11th Royal Spyness Mystery, On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service. There’s mayhem and madcap galore, up to a point, but with serious and sobering underpinnings. Rhys Bowen deftly weaves historical facts throughout this mostly lighthearted mystery.


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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