Rhys Bowen has at least two series going; the Molly Murphy series, mysteries set at the turn of the 20th century in New York, and Her Royal Spyness, set in Britain in the 1930s. I’ve now read two from Her Royal Spyness. There is plenty I like and plenty I don’t like.
The first book is Her Royal Spyness, and I haven’t read it. The two I’ve read are further into the series. Our first-person narrator, Georgiana Rannock, is the daughter of an aristocrat, and about thirty-eighth in line for the throne. Although this means her actual chances of ascending the throne are worse than John Goodman’s was in that 1990s movie King Ralph, Georgie is still frequently on-call for social and magisterial duties, and afforded much scrutiny. She has certain privileges as a royal, but she is also dirt poor, and her royal cousins feel perfectly comfortable assigning her less “regular” tasks… and often, while she’s doing these special favors, corpses turn up.
Georgie’s father was a rather staid duke, but her mother, an actress, is notorious; traipsing across the continent, entering into liaison after liaison (and sometimes marriage) with various wealthy and scandalous men. Georgie’s brother inherited the title, the castle and the London townhouse, and his wife hates Georgie, which means, realistically, Georgie has to beg a place to sleep from friends or other relatives.
Against this backdrop, she and her boyfriend Darcy, an equally penniless peer, solve murders.
Heirs and Graces finds Georgie in Kent, ready to babysit the newly discovered missing heir of an aristocratic family. The heir in question was raised on a sheep ranch in Australia and knows nothing about society ways or royal bloodlines — nor does he care to. His uncle, the current Duke, who has refused to marry and is petulant and spiteful, plans to thwart young Jack’s legacy at any cost. Also in the household is the Duke’s mother, a dreadnought of a woman; the current Duke’s sister and her three children, and two scandalous, elderly aunts. When the Duke is found dead with Jack’s Aussie dagger sticking out of his back, the household is thrown into disarray, and Georgie and Darcy must determine what really happened.
This book felt very much like an Agatha Christie book in all the best ways; a household of people, each with a secret; secret passages, false clues and misunderstandings. I enjoyed all of that. While I thought the conclusion was weak, I enjoyed the twist element. There are a couple of spots where, in retrospect, it’s clear how much Bowen was playing with us, and I enjoyed that.
I didn’t enjoy the depiction of the Duke, who is gay, as neurotic, petulant, catty and manipulative. In a strange way, I suppose his refusal to marry and provide an heir could be seen as courageous (even though no one in the story sees it that way). He could have been honestly gay without falling into a tiresome stereotype. About halfway through the book, the Duke announces that he will designate his French valet his heir; this, while being legally questionable, is also catty and malicious. And it could be that this is supposed to be one particular character, not a stereotype — except that the cluster of London theater-kids, the Duke’s hangers on, are also all gay, and in addition to all being snippy, witty and great dancers, they are also callous, selfish and uncaring.
My biggest problems with Heirs and Graces might simply be that I am from the USA, living in a different century now, and the fixation with changing Aussie Jack into a British noble was both boring and disrespectful. Unlike Georgie, I didn’t support the idea of the stodgy aristocracy holding onto their privilege and their rules about which fork to use and what kind of hat to wear. I know those people did care, and I know I’m supposed to, but there is an overall coldness to the book that made me not care. Really not care.
In Crowned and Dangerous, Darcy’s own father, a penniless Irish Peer, is accused of murdering the American who bought the ancestral home and racing stable. Darcy coldly pushes Georgie aside, to protect her from the notoriety (apparently he missed the memo about Georgie’s mother), but Georgie rushes to his side anyway and they work, along with a dashing, beautiful and seductive Russian princess who fled the Russian revolution and emigrated to England, to exonerate Darcy’s father. Once again, as in Heirs and Graces, the distinctions are simply and rather shallowly drawn; Princess, good, revolutionaries, bad. Of course, this is from the point of view of a (distant) royal. I’m sure as the series progresses Georgie will have to grapple with some questions about good and bad, but that happens in neither of these books.
Crowned and Dangerous suffered from a fatal flaw; long stretches of it were boring. The story requires Darcy and Georgie to go to Dublin, talk to the American embassy and send of telegrams and letters… and then wait for the responses. And that is exactly as exciting as you imagined it.
This book in enlivened by two eccentric relatives of Darcy, and the aforementioned Princess, but they weren’t quite enough to pull the story through the let’s-wait-for-the-telegram doldrums.
So what did I like about them? Bowen can write. Descriptions are lovely, and mostly, Georgie’s little dilemmas are fun. I enjoy the glittering smart set in their expensive clothes and expensive cars. We are told repeatedly that Britain was not as badly hit by the Depression as the USA was. I do like the complicated family relationships. Bowen has taken an interesting approach to the future King Edward and his relationship with Wallis Simpson, who Georgie, along with all her royal relatives, loathes. Apparently, Bowen is going to pretend that Edward David’s (King Edward’s) abdication in 1936 was out of love for Wallis Simpson, the same romantic story that we all grew up with, which has been pretty thoroughly debunked in recent decades. As it is, Wallis and Georgie meet at various social gatherings and Georgie never fails to describe her as “that poisonous woman.” There is no hint of Edward David’s admiration for Adolf Hitler or his actions as a Nazi sympathizer. To be fair, the books take place before Edward is crowed and before he created a constitutional crisis by proposing to a twice-divorced woman. I don’t particularly like Bowen’s depiction of the royals at this time but, since these books take place in the early 1930s, I suspect they are an accurate picture of what the royals thought (as opposed to what the government knew).
The books are interesting. Either one of these would be good on a rainy afternoon or a night in a hotel room on the way to a destination. They’re enjoyable, but I won’t seek out more of them. Very British, and yet not quite my cup of tea.