Reviewer: Linda Hepworth

Publisher: Zaffre   (An imprint of Bonnier Books UK)   11th November 2021

ISBN: 978-1838774820   PB

This second story in S. J. Bennett’s ‘Her Majesty The Queen Investigates’ series reveals yet more shady goings-on in the Royal Household and more mysteries and crimes for HRH and Rozie Oshodi, her trusted Assistant Private Secretary to investigate. To discover the complexities of what led up to the death of the woman discovered by the swimming pool at the start of the story the reader is taken back three months when, over breakfast, the Queen shares a disturbing discovery with Prince Philip. The previous day, on an official visit to an exhibition of maritime art in Portsmouth she saw a painting of the ex-royal yacht, Britannia, a painting which held huge sentimental value for her. It had once hung on a wall outside her bedroom but had disappeared sometime in the nineties, following decorating works. Determined to have it restored to her, she sets Rozie the task of discovering how it had ended up there and to arrange for its swift return. However, the organiser of the exhibition insists that the artist must have painted more than one copy because this one belonged to the Ministry of Defence and had been lent to the exhibition by the Second Sea Lord. Nevertheless, the Queen knows without any shadow of doubt that she is not mistaken and is determined to that it will be returned to her – but what neither she nor Rozie could possibly have anticipated is what their investigations will uncover, or the lengths some people will go to to prevent the truth from emerging.

Attempting to unravel what, if any, the connections are between a spate of poison-pen letters, sudden resignations, the disappearance of valuable paintings, art forgery, dishonest employees, a well-established conspiracy to defraud, suspicious deaths turns out to be a complex business but, as anyone who has read The Windsor Knot will know, nothing will stop this intrepid duo from getting to the truth!

Interspersed with all the private investigation work, are HRH’s reflections on contemporary issues (the 2016 referendum, Brexit, Theresa May, the Trump/Clinton election campaign etc) and some insights into the wide range of her official duties, demonstrating not only the ceremonial formality of some aspects of her life, but the meticulous planning which underpins such occasions. Alongside this the reader is treated to imagined (but believable!) conversations with Prince Philip, asides about various members of the family, how she relaxes (with her horses and dogs and spending time with the young grandchildren) and glimpses into the daily routines at Buckingham Palace. The author’s respect, admiration and affection for the Queen permeate her writing but from the many small details which make the story feel so convincing, it’s apparent throughout that she must have done considerable research to enable her to convey such a convincing portrayal of life in the Royal Household. One historical fact she included, to demonstrate that ‘below-stairs’ skulduggery is nothing new, was a reference to how William Fortnum, a footman to Queen Anne, began to demonstrate the entrepreneurial skill which would, in time, lead him to set up in business with a certain Hugh Mason and make his fortune. I had no idea … and if you want to know you’ll have to read the book to find out!

In my review of the first book in this series (which I read last autumn) I described the story as ‘a fun read – the perfect antidote to any Covid-blues.’ Although, inevitably I think, this second novel lacks the ‘novelty’ value of the first, I still found it easy to suspend disbelief and to enjoy losing myself in a different world for a few hours. It’s a well-plotted, gently humorous story with a cast of well-developed, eminently believable characters and although there are some dark deeds at the heart of it, an absolute belief that all will turn out well in the end makes the whole process feel rather genteel! The eventual explanation about why the Queen was able to be so adamant that the painting of Britannia was hers was delightfully convincing and, in the light of Prince Philip’s recent death, rather poignant. I also loved the author’s thinking behind her choice of title – partly inspired by Sherlock Holmes who, whenever he had a difficult case to solve had to smoke three pipes, describing it as a ‘three pipe problem’. Faced with a similar problem the Queen needed to take her three dogs for a walk!

One thread in the story involves four paintings by the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman who achieved success in a man’s world in the seventeenth century. As the Queen and Rozie are the indefatigable sleuths in this story, I loved the fact that the author prefaced the final section of the novel with this famous quote from the artist: ‘You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.’ As the next book in the series (Murder Most Royal) is due to be published in November 2022, it’s clear that our two protagonists still have more cases to solve … so fans of the series will, once more, be allowed to peek behind royal doors!