Tour’s Books Blog

May 4, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

Rhys Bowen is an Agatha Award winner for her Molly Murphy historical mysteries and also writes the Constable Evans series, both period mystery series.  With Her Royal Spyness she tackles a different time period, the early 1930’s, and very upper class – impoverished royalty.  The story is told in the first person by Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, known as Georgie, is the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and 34th in line for the throne, making her a very minor royal, but a royal nonetheless.  The Great Depression has hit Europe as hard as the US and bread lines and soup kitchens are a common sight.  Georgie’s older half-brother, Binky, the current Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch has even more financial troubles having the estate decimated by the combined effects of gambling losses by his father, the stock market crash and the death duties on his inheritance.

While sitting on the loo, Georgie overhears Binky and his wife, Fig, discussing a request from Her Majesty, Queen Mary, to entertain Prince Sigfried.  They haven’t the money and frankly don’t want the visitors.  It’s still snowing in Scotland and there just isn’t any way to entertain them with the usual activities like hunting.  The real reason for the visit is to try and get Georgie married off to someone of the right social station.  Knowing full well what the goal is, Georgie, who has no funds of her own, decides to do a bunk to London under the pretense of helping a friend with their wedding.

Alone in London without even a maid, she stays at Rannoch House, the huge empty pile without any central heat or hot water turned on – and she doesn’t even know how to lay a fire in her own room!  She’s only in London a short time when HR sends a note ‘requesting’ she present herself for tea at Buckingham Palace.  It’s here where Queen Mary, concerned with her eldest son’s fixation on an ‘unsuitable woman’ explains that she wants Georgie to attend a house party and report back to her.  Georgie’s is reluctant to spy on her cousin David, Prince of Wales (later known as Edward VII), but one does not refuse the queen.  (This is a where the clever title came from, but it really doesn’t play into the basic story.)  Since protocol demands that a guest eat nothing the queen isn’t eating, Georgie has to forego the lovely tarts and cakes and settle for a little brown bread and leaves her tea as hungry as she arrived.

Georgie, in need of some practical advice, goes straight from the queen to see her maternal grandfather, a retired bobby living in a very modest suburb.  Her mother has acquired a decent amount of funds from her career and her marriages and the one thing she’s done is buy her grandfather a little house.  Georgie tells him everything while he makes her the hot meal she obviously needs.  It’s a strange social divide that exists between them, even though they obviously care deeply for each other.

In the meantime she must find someway to find money or she’ll starve.  Her school chum, Belinda, who is trying to start a dress design business, tells her to get a job – not an easy thing for a royal.   Georgie stops for tea at a poor shop and ends up getting reacquainted with Darcy O’Mara, supposedly the heir of an Irish peer, handsome, charming, Catholic and poor.  Just the kind of man she’s supposed to stay away from.  Thing is, he’s quite the most interesting man she’s met.  He lures her into crashing the wedding reception with him so they can both have a good meal.  Hunger wins out over good sense and propriety and she agrees – only to run into Belinda who, it turns out, is doing the same thing!  Her business isn’t doing all that well and she’s having problems getting her customers to pay up.  Georgie also runs into Tristram Hautbois, the ward of her mother’s second husband, Sir Hubert Anstrurher, a man who always treated her like his own daughter.  Tristam recognizes her and reminds her of their distant association.  He tells her Sir Hubert is in a coma in a Swiss hospital after fall while mountain climbing.  The prognosis is not good.

    While the gate-crashing was exciting, it was also nerve wracking and Georgie needs to earn some money as she no allowance from Binky.  With Belinda’s fake letter of recommendation she gets a job Harrod’s cosmetic counter.  She barely starts when her mother comes in and makes a scene to see to it she gets fired.  Georgie’s next foray into earning money is a simple housekeeping service, just dusting and make up the beds sort of thing that scandalizes even the very progressive Belinda.  She gets thru her first job without incident – and acquires a new respect for the working class, only to get a message from Fig that Binky is coming down to London and could she see to it that his room was done up, fire started, his favorite parlor opened and get breakfast for him, etc.  Georgie is furious until she realizes that Fig thinks she’s hired a maid by now.  She returns from another visit with her grandfather only to have a pushy and obnoxious Frenchman attempt to force his way inside Rannoch House.  He asks all manner of intensely personal questions about Rannoch Castle and its income while she insists he speak with the Duke.  A shaken Georgie finally makes him leave, but once Binky arrives she demands some answers.

    Gaston de Mauxville has documents that show the old duke lost Rannoch Castle gambling at cards before his death.  Even if the man wants to be bought off, Binky hasn’t got the funds to do it.  The visit to the solicitors indicates the claim looks genuine and would need to be fought in French courts.  She manages to hide the cleaning job from Binky, but almost was caught out by men she knows, Roderick (Wiffy) Featherstonhaugh and Tristram Hautbois.  The start speaking in truly awful French thinking she wouldn’t understand, but it isn’t till much later that she realizes what they actually meant.  She manages to escape detection, gets back to Rannoch House – and finds the body of a fully clothed Gaston de Mauxville in the bathtub.  Binky is nowhere to be found and his things are gone.  His club won’t tell her is he’s there or not so she and Belinda cook up a story, go back to Rannoch House and call the police claiming to have just found the body.  Georgie calls Rannoch Castle and tells the butler to get her brother back to London on the first train or else.

    Georgie stays with Belinda while she tries to help Binky, the most obvious suspect.  Just to take a break, she and Belinda go out on a cruise with a friend of Belinda’s and she gets dragged into the river with a rope snagged around her ankle.  Darcy, also a guest, gets her out and she spends a pleasant evening with him – and nearly longer, but good sense prevails.  Then she pushed off an underground platform into an oncoming train – and is saved by a workman who grabs her just in time.  Is the murderer after her too?  She asks her ex-bobby granddad for help in gathering information and together they stage a way to search his rooms at Claridge’s.  Dressed as a maid, Georgie gets into de Mauxville’s room where she finds a small fortune in bills hidden in a jacket lining but nothing else of interest.

    Though she tries her best, Binky is still arrested for murder.  Undaunted, Georgie tries to find the real killer.  Her Majesty lends what aid she can, mostly so Georgie will attend the house party at Lady Mountjoy’s where her son will be meeting ‘that American woman’.  Georgie thinks anything is better than being shipped off to be a ‘lady in waiting’ to her great aunt somewhere in the country – or marriage to the repellent Siegfried, so she happy to oblige.   Unfortunately, Prince Siegfried, he of the fish lips, is also a guest as is her mother and her current lover, Max, a German industrialist.  At the party Georgie has more accidents and it is in unraveling the reason for them that she is able to work out who and why of de Mauxville’s murder.   The thing is, though I guessed the who, they why was hidden till the last moment.

      Her Royal Spyness is populated with the kind of n’er-do-well’s of the upper crust that are so popular in the 1930’s movies as well as some real historical figures.  Georgie is a charming guide with wit and a certain self deprecation about herself and her complete lack of education on how to actually make her way in the world where women of her class were ‘finished’, not educated.  And certainly not given any useful job training.  It’s interesting to watch her slow evolution into a more self confident and self reliant young woman aware of the real world, proud of her small achievements at independence, not just reliant insular existence she’s always known.

      As a period piece Her Royal Spyness is original, off-beat, charming, witty and entertaining.  As a cozy mystery it’s gets off to a rather slow start but moves along once it’s underway.  The surrounding story of Georgie is entertaining all on its own.  Ms Bowen keeps our heroine on her toes and the action within reasonable bounds for society of that period – including Georgie’s relative naiveté about life outside her class.  Frankly, I found it far more entertaining than the much more highly touted Deanna Raybourn Lady Jane Grey series.  I sincerely hope we’ll be seeing more of Darcy O’Mara who proved a delightful distraction.  Georgie has a wonderful ‘voice’ as our narrator and near victim.  A truly pleasant amateur sleuth British cozy.

      My Grade: B (4*)

      Who would enjoy this book:  Fans of Jacqueline Windspear, Victoria Thompson and Carola Dunn.  The rating is PG-13.

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