Friday, 5 March 2021

The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett

 


I've added a slightly random note to be reading of late - as a library user I have access to Borrowbox, a collection of e- and audio-books. Actually I preferred the library's previous option, which seemed to have a slightly larger choice, and I was happily working my way through most of Ian Rankin's recent books, with a lengthy wishlist to follow. However, for some reason they changed provider, and the new one appears to have a booklist geared to Northumbrian readers, with a huge collection of L.J. Ross's local mysteries which, I'm afraid, I really don't like.

What I did like when I borrowed it on spec, however, was The Windsor Knot, by S.J. Bennett, a mystery set at Windsor Castle, with Her Majesty in residence for the spring and a month of "less formal" socialising. A Dine and Sleep (apparently it's a Thing) has been held, with a mix of new and regular guests for a "Fête à la Russe" organised by Prince Charles. Now, it's the morning after, and while the various guests are finishing their breakfast before leaving, Her Majesty is informed that a young Russian pianist has been found dead in his room, in rather compromising circumstances. Soon the police will be crawling all over the scene of crime - with utter discretion, of course - and generally upsetting the servants.

The evening had gone rather well. The entertainment had been good - Brodsky, the pianist had played Rachmaninov, followed by some scenes by two Russian ballet dancers, and Brodsky had returned to the piano to play some dance music. The Queen had retired at her usual time, but had been happy for the party to continue, and as she had left, Brodsky had been dancing with one of the ballerinas while the playing had been taken over by the wife of a Professor of Russian Literature.

But now Brodsky is dead. Questions must be asked. Was he just a musician? Has there been a lapse in security? With all these Russians about, could this be an assassination attempt by Putin or the FSB? Could Brodsky even be a sleeper? The police lean rather to this possibility, although the Queen is quietly sceptical. The officer in charge of the investigation is suitably senior, but he's over-promoted and condescending, and Her Majesty is not impressed. Fortunately, the Queen is a bit of an old hand at solving mysteries, and with the help of her new Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, she sets about doing some investigating herself. After all, she's met lots of experts who can be consulted.

The Windsor Knot is a pleasant and gently humorous mystery with some very likable characters. The Queen is portrayed by an author who's obviously done her research: she describes herself as a "royal watcher" and talks interestingly on her website about her background and why she felt able to write this book. I'm not a royal watcher, but it strikes me that she paints an insightful and convincing portrait which takes into account the Queen's long reign, in which she must have noticed a thing or to about people in general, and depicts her as generous and human and pretty shrewd. And meticulous and admirably self-disciplined, even in her thoughts. We see a good deal of the action from HM's point of view, albeit secondhand, and I particularly enjoyed the scene where she drags three senior policeman out on a muddy dog-walk. She's well matched too, by Rozie, who's still feeling her way into the job; here the relationship between the Queen and her new assistant is beautifully developed, as Rozie learns to intuit what can't be said by a monarch and to become a loyal and trustworthy helper.

I should add a word about the reader of the audio version, Samantha Bond. An excellent and fluent performance, with distinguishable voices, perfectly paced - which, incidentally, matches the plot - and none of those irritating little mispronunciations which can accumulate to flaw an otherwise good reading. Bond is certainly a candidate for my list of top-ten readers and, I can tell you, I'm picky. But she nearly earns her five stars just for being able to pronounce "valet" (with the T sounded, please and thank you).

So, all-in-all, excellent book, excellent reader - I look forward to the next in what I hope will be a series, A Three Dog Problem. The title certainly pleases. I may even go so far as to pre-order it.