Tour’s Books Blog

June 14, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen

If Rhys Bowen was a dancer, she’d be Fred Astaire. Her writing is effortless grace that makes everything around shine with glamor and class. It’s amazing really, how easily you’re drawn into the world and the characters that populate 1932 London – Britain’s upper crust, especially the ne’er do well ones used to living well and suddenly unable to do so on their own due to the depression. From the first page you’re lost in vaguely decadent pre-war London seen through the eyes of the still innocent, observant, increasingly less naïve Lady Georgiana Rannoch.

A Royal Pain is the second book in Bowen’s new Her Royal Spyness series and it’s even better than the first. Not only is there more of a mystery, but Ms Bowen dances Georgie through a tale filled with Noel Coward characters – not to mention a cameo appearance by Mr Coward himself – mixing fictional with real people easily and with her usual attention to detail. Bits of history, like the relationship between Prince George, later the Duke of Kent, and Noel Coward, the communist and fascist party conflicts, and most importantly, the infatuation of her cousin David – know to the world as Edward the VIII – with a notorious American woman, Wallis Simpson.

Once again, Her Majesty is trying to re-direct David’s attentions to a more suitable female. She asks Georgie to host the young Princess Maria Theresa Hannelore Whilelmina Mathilda, known as Hanni, and do her best to get her in the path of her son. The problem is Rannoch House has no servants and Georgie has no money – and heaven knows the Crown does think about things like paying the bills – so first on Georgie’s to-do list is prying some funds from her brother and sister-in-law. As for the rest, well a trip to see her ex-policeman grandfather, a solid down to earth type, for advice is where she starts. To help her out, he volunteers to be her ‘butler’ and his neighbor, widowed Mrs. Hubble who is avoiding eviction during the depression, will act as cook. Now she just needs a maid and a way how to keep her own little housekeeping business afloat – and a secret – while she’s back to being a royal and a hostess.

Hanni arrives and for a girl fresh from the convent, she’s brash, outspoken, uses American slang learned from gangster movies, and wants to party hearty. Her companion is a formidable lady, Baroness Rottenmeister, who has far more interest in her food than in London or entertainments. Hanni is quite the handful and with Georgie just few years older, it’s a challenge t try and keep her under control. Her maid, Irmgardt is skulking about Rannoch House at all hours. Her grandfather, with his policeman instincts and stolid yeoman eye thinks they’re all trouble and Georgie should dump them elsewhere. The thing is, one does not say no to the Queen.

A few outings and Hanni is already collecting Communist literature in Hyde Park. A campaign to rid them of the demanding Baroness – cold water baths, little food – and that things like porridge and toad in the hole – eventually takes its toll and the Baroness decides to stay with Prince Sigfried’s (AKA Fish Lips) Aunt – the lady for whom Georgie had cleaned house just a few days before. Hanni and Georgie land at a very swish party at Gussie Gormsely’s posh apartment with live jazz, lots of alcohol and cocaine in the kitchen and her mother in the living room chatting with Noel Coward about starring in a play he’s writing and the handsome Mr. Darcy in attendance, much to Hanni’s delight. Then Tubby Twekesbury ends up going off the balcony to his death as Georgie stand out there chatting to the young man in a tuxedo who had handed them communist literature in Hyde Park.

Then a trip to a book shop in the heart of the Docklands area has another dead body – that same young man with the communist literature she chatted with on the balcony is knifed. Hanni finds him and the knife and Inspector Suggs, the same man who investigated the body in the bathtub in Her Royal Spyness, finds himself once again interviewing Lady Georgina and not one bit happy about it. To get them away from the press – and near David, HM gets them invited to a house party, with the Baroness once again in tow. The hostess is an American heiress married to a title and a school friend of none other than Wallis Simpson. The smitten prince has less than no interest in Hanni and she shows little interest in him.

There is another death, apparently a natural one, but still too many to be just coincidence. What is the common thread? Georgie pieces it all together and it’s her mother who provides the final clue.

Rhys Bowen keeps A Royal Pain moving  at a fast clip, but never rushing. Filled with the atmosphere of the early 30’s it captures the sense the economic turmoil and political and social unrest evident even to those that would ordinarily be well insulated from it all.  It’s that juxtaposition of great wealth and poverty – the huge gap that goes beyond social standing where Georgie’s awareness begins blooming. Her new financial circumstances make her far more aware of how sheltered and oblivious she’s been to the conditions of the working class. In addition to the mystery, the reader gets to watch Georgie evolve and mature as she gets experience with life – and death. An entertaining and satisfying cozy. Grab a cup of tea and some Pims biscuits and settle in for a classy mystery that’s as smooth, stylish and lively as Fred and Ginger.

My Grade: A- (4.5*)

Who would enjoy this book: Readers of classic British mysteries, British cozies and historical mysteries. The rating is PG.

The paperback will be released on July 7th

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