When I was about twelve years old, I wanted to marry Charles, Prince of Wales, who was eighteen. I wrote him a letter, telling him about my plans for his future, and received a signed picture in return, which I stuck in a drawer. It wasn’t that I had a crush on him—as far as any budding sexual attraction went, I was much more interested in two boys in my class. I just thought it would be great to be the Queen of England. At the time, I was a fan of English history: the exciting-story version, of course. Richard the Lionheart being rescued from a tower, Henry VIII chopping off heads, Elizabeth I vanquishing the Spanish Armada—from my historical perspective, becoming an English royal sounded like stepping into an adventure story or a fairytale. (It would be a couple of decades before Diana Spencer showed us that marrying a prince is more like waking up in the middle of a nightmare.)
Before long I’d forgotten about courting Prince Charles—although my family kept teasing me about it for years—but I’ve retained an interest in English history and at least a pinch of Anglophilia ever since. Perhaps that’s why, when I read that S. J. Bennett’s The Windsor Knot was about an almost-ninety-year-old Queen Elizabeth II solving a murder in Windsor Castle, I bought the book immediately.
What a find! This mystery is, above all, enormously entertaining. While dealing sympathetically and soberly with the deaths that take place as part of the plot and treating the royal family and its household with affection and dignity, the book still manages to be witty, light-hearted, and amusing. The plot is well-organized and moves at a smart pace, and the characters are delightful.
The Windsor Knot starts with the Queen holding one of her “dine and sleeps” in Windsor castle for an eclectic group of VIPs that includes a Russian oligarch and his spectacularly beautiful wife. A handsome and very talented Russian pianist is brought in at the last minute to entertain the overnight guests after dinner, along with two Russian ballerinas; the Queen actually dances with the young pianist. The next morning he is found choked to death in his attic bedroom. Was it autoeroticism gone wrong, suicide, or murder? The British Security Service, MI5, decides that the culprit is Vladimir Putin, who must have activated a sleeper agent hidden among the staff at Windsor Castle.
The queen is appalled that her staff have fallen under suspicion and convinced that MI5’s view of the case is completely wrong. With her new assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, doing most of the legwork, the queen secretly begins to investigate what really happened to the young Russian.
An Afghanistan war veteran of Nigerian descent, Rozie Oshodi is smart and funny, with very short hair and very high heels. At first, she can’t figure why the queen is asking her to do so many odd and secret tasks, but soon she is as eager to solve the crime—and put the patronizing MI5 man in his place—as her boss is.
Other members of the royal family make cameo appearances during the story, as do a variety of real people, such as Sir David Attenborough and Michelle Obama. There is a lot of fun background on how Windsor Castle is run and what the queen’s daily life is like. Most appealing to me is Bennett’s portrayal of the queen herself, perfectly correct at all times and yet warm, thoughtful, clever, and capable of carrying on an investigation in complete secrecy and then making sure that the official leader of the investigation gets all the hints and prods he needs to come up with the solution that Her Majesty knows is correct.
Over the past months, I’ve recommended some dark mysteries, books I truly enjoyed. The Windsor Knot proves how clever and entertaining a mystery can be without plunging its readers into gloom and existential dread. I suggest that you suspend all your republican sentiments just for as long as it takes you to read this lively book.