The Cranky Laptop Writes, her personal blog. For more, see www.pennydolan.com and @pennydolan.
Books with a slightly sideways view appeal to me and in The Windsor Knot, the author S. J. Bennett does just that, creating a fictional version of a familiar national presence: Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I am not an eager royalist or watcher of The Windsors or The Crown, so it was only when I heard the book was a crime novel that I became interested, especially in Bennett’s "What if?” angle:
What if, secretly, the Queen was a sleuth? Someone with a gift for searching out and solving crimes? An untangler of mysteries? A grey-haired but blue-blooded Jane Marple? Someone who could truly be described as a genuine Queen of Crime? What an inspired concept! I was keen to find out more.
I’d welcomed, ages ago, the regal makeover in The Uncommon Reader, a different Bennet's book, and I’d enjoyed this Bennett’s books for a younger audience too. Consequently, on a lock-down night not long ago, I visited he Windsor Castle, set in April 2016, for a chapter or two. Closing it in the early hours, I woke restlessly three hours later for more pages and sneaked away to finish it the next afternoon. What made The Windsor Knot so charming and compelling?
This fictional Elizabeth is very recognisable: a working monarch with a strong sense of duty and public service who takes her own role and palace protocol seriously. However, Bennett suggests, this unique position has offered her unusual opportunities: “Wherever the Queen goes, everyone's eyes turn towards her, which makes her the one person able to look outward and see what is really happening.” Like Miss Marple, she notices what other do not see, while the palace staff are like her own village community.
Plot-wise, this is a locked-room mystery, though the “room” in question is vast: Windsor Castle, a royal palace apparently secured every night. The big event, plump with soft diplomacy, is a Royal “Eat and Sleep”: an evening when Her Majesty invites important international guests and a few trusted, reliable conversationalists to a small dinner. Once the meal is over, the guests are entertained by selected singers, dancers and musicians and, when Her Majesty has retired to bed, party on informally for a while.
Overnight accommodation is provided for everyone present, from impressive guest suites used by visiting diplomats, pleasant rooms for business celebrities and cramped cubby-holes in the old servant’s attic where the musicians will sleep.
Or, in this plot, not.
The next morning, a young Russian pianist is discovered dead inside an attic wardrobe and the Queen, who briefly danced with the young man herself, is grieved by his murder. Soon she is just as concerned about the shadow cast upon her security and, implicitly, on the members of her personal Household. D.C.I Strong of the Met and the Director General of M15 - “grey of suit and grey of mind”- have opted for a “Putin” plot solution so when, unforgivably, they suggest one of her loyal, long-time servants could be a foreign spy, the Queen decides discreet but definite action is needed.
However, unlike the quietly scuttling Jane Marple, the Queen cannot be seen to act or publicly enquire at all. Not only is her diary is set, timed and scrutinised but Sir Simon Holdcroft, her Personal Secretary, regards her as a fragile woman to be protected from worrying information.
Among others, he tries to protect her, not accepting that the Queen has already had a lifetime of experiences.. As she tells Phillip, rather pointedly: “They forget I’ve lived through a World War, that Ferguson girl and you in the Navy”.
The Queen, in the novel, needs someone who will work quietly on her behalf. Fortunately, she has that in her new APS (Assistant Personal Secretary) Rozie Oshodi, just returned from her cousin’s wedding in Nigeria. With South London roots, Sandhurst training, smart suit, high heels and eager determination, Rozie is the standout character in this book . As Bennett herself was once interviewed for this post, the role carries extra conviction and enthusiasm.
When the Queen makes a subtle suggestion, Rozie is uncertain about the protocol around the request. Need Sir Simon know? Then she recalls the retiring APS’s quiet words during the handover meeting:
“One day, she’ll ask you to do something strange. I mean, every day will be strange but you’ll get used to that. One day it will be super strange. You’ll know it.”
“You just will.”
Hesitantly, but with increasing confidence, Rozie understands who needs finding, which meetings must be set up and what messages must be sent. Eventually, the mystery is untangled and works its way to a solution.
The charm of The Windsor Knot was, for me, far more than the interest of the plot. What I enjoyed was the warm, well-researched glimpse into life within Windsor Castle.
The palace is not shown in a remote guide-book style but as the Queen’s beloved family home, filled with loyal hard-working staff. The reader sees the palace from her point of view.
As she walks through the ornate Octagon Room to her office, she glimpses a tour-group scuttling away, agape at the glittering treasures on display. At her desk, signing official letters and papers, she cheers up at the sight of a meeting booked with her racing Manager. Out riding in the Park, she feels a sense of peace and freedom, although we find her groom and security guard are riding along behind. While investigating, she pauses in an unfamiliar back corridor, and enjoys listening to the servants talking together, knowing that any conversations will stop the moment she shows herself.
The reader feels some sympathy for this private woman, surrounded by the pressures and protocols of a solitary role, despite the real-world press stories. Nor does S. J. Bennett avoid occasional short, sharp, sideways references to the real Elizabeth’s life story and the various troubles within the royal circle and within the Castle.
Published before the Duke of Edinburgh’s death and the funeral at Windsor Castle, some scenes have an added poignancy. In the novel, with its 2016 time frame, Elizabeth’s beloved Philip comes and goes, still good-looking, still fondly calling her “Cabbage”: the only person who treats her as an ordinary human being while, as frustratingly as ever, doing exactly whatever he wants to do.
Her Majesty The Queen Investigates: The Windsor Knot is the first in a planned series from S. J. Bennett, going back in time. The second, A Three Dog Problem, due out in November 2021, is set within Buckingham Palace just after the Referendum and includes a missing royal painting and a body in a swimming pool.
The books could be set among too much splendour and privilege to be truly termed “cosy crime” and not everyone warms to the theme of monarchy or royal lifestyles. Nevertheless, having travelled through the pages of her Windsor Knot story, I can understand why S.J. Bennett describes Her Majesty Investigates as a series about loyalty, community and service.
As she says on her website: "I love a world in which a wise and experienced older woman quietly, subtly, keeps things on track by working for good behind the scenes. I love the loyalty and devotion of the people who work for her in these books, and hers to them. I love the sense of tradition mixed with curiosity about the present and a real commitment to making the future the best that it can be."
Besides, in the current situation, I feel that all sorts of books are needed, especially ones that make such happy reading.
|S J Bennett|