The Windsor Knot
S. J. Bennett
(William Morrow, 274 pages, $28)
To Americans, the idea of having a queen, or a monarch of any sort or gender, is, to put it politely, eccentric. We say thanks, but no thanks. We settled that question in the butt end of the 18th century, and we’re not changing our minds now.
But if a country must have one, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of it than Elizabeth II has in the UK. She’s intelligent, always dignified, seemingly indefatigable in her highly regimented and near impossible job, even into her 90s.
Elizabeth knows when to put her oar in and when not to, eschewing partisanship and advocacy. On the available evidence it’s hard to see Prince Charles, a man of many causes, some of them distinctly off plumb, exercising the same restraint. About the only area in which anyone save a devoted republican could give her low marks is for the hit-and-miss family she’s left behind (witness the recent two-hour television pity party). But it would be unfair to put all their bad behavior down to her and/or Prince Philip. Perhaps the quality ends with her. For the sake of the “special relationship” and Britain’s place in the world we can pray she lives forever.
She’s making a good start on this last thing. At 94 she has reigned as monarch since 1952, a span of 69 years, making Victoria at 63 years and the first Elizabeth at 44 seem like flashes in the royal pan by comparison. Her active life has spanned World War II, the continued dissolution of the British Empire, the Cold War, the Thatcher years and the train wreck that preceded them, Cool Britannia, Brexit, and now COVID and a flakey PM who hasn’t combed his hair since before the Beatles broke up. She certainly has the benefit of the long view.
So it’s easy enough imagining Herself dealing with diplomats, passing out awards, setting a calm tone after disasters, and attending the endless tedious ceremonies that are down to her as sovereign. Part of her job description is to suffer fools gladly, or at least not too obviously un-gladly. But can we imagine Elizabeth II as amateur detective, ferreting out a murderer rude enough to leave a corpse behind at her beloved Windsor Castle?
Well, we don’t have to imagine this unlikely scenario. S. J. Bennett has imagined it for us, and the result is a charming and intelligent entertainment in which the little old lady in a hat, so easy to underestimate, outwits the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), MI5 (the secret squirrels), and various other security services whose well-upholstered operatives chase absurd theories of the crime and their own tails.
The plot is complex and suspenseful, with red herrings and unexpected twists. The story is well paced, the resolution satisfying.
Here’s the setup: After playing at a “dine and sleep” affair at Windsor Castle, a young and talented Russian pianist is murdered in his Windsor guest room, left in such a manner as to suggest he had accidentally hanged himself while engaged in a kinky sexual practice. But it was indeed murder, and wouldn’t the British tabloid press just swoon over this? Joy would be unconfined on Fleet Street. All other news would be canceled in order to wallow in this for weeks. Okra Windbag would be on the next plane to London. So it was a matter great urgency to find the killer quickly while keeping this story from leaking.
When it becomes clear to Elizabeth that the “real detectives” are headed in wrong directions, she realizes she’ll have to find time from her day job from hell to sort this one herself. She doesn’t do the leg work, a sovereign’s freedom to move about being severely restricted, but enlists the help of a far-flung field of talent to do the detecting while she connects the dots when these loyal snoopers report their piece of the puzzle. Her chief assistant in the urgent hunt is her assistant private secretary, one Rozie Oshodi, a former British Army officer from Nigeria and still in her 20s. Rozie is an appealing character in this one, as is Elizabeth, who while keeping the required distance from others, including her loyal helpers, still manages to demonstrate her humanity. Not to mention her occasional arch humor.
The plot is complex and suspenseful, with red herrings and unexpected twists. The story is well paced, the resolution satisfying. I’ll leave the plot details to those who choose to read The Windsor Knot, which would be a good investment of time for those looking for an entertaining way to take a break from the news of the day.
The title of “queen of crime” was first bestowed on Agatha Christie, whose mystery novels and the movies and TV series made from them have entertained millions from her first novel in 1920. After Dame Agatha left the scene, the consensus new queen of crime was P. D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James, whose characters and settings in her Commander Adam Dalgliesh series are more realistic than Agatha’s but just as entertaining. Bennett and her publisher promise more crimes for Elizabeth II to solve in future books. Perhaps there will come a day when the latest queen of crime is a real sovereign.