I have the best friends. No, I do. I recently got a giant box of books in the mail from a friend in Wisconsin filled with mystery novels. Some I’ve read, but mostly they were new-to-me titles and in several cases they were new-to-me authors. I picked through the box and fished out a couple that looked fun. One of them was. The other wasn’t.
The first book, which sported the unwieldy title Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, is by Catriona McPherson, and it looked just the ticket: set between the wars, in Scotland, upper class amateur sleuth masquerades as a lady’s maid in order to protect “her mistress”, who insists her husband is going to kill her. I settled in, looking forward to a good time.
Except not. In fact, it was so not a good time that I didn’t finish it.
I really think if you’re going to do the upper class amateur sleuth thing, you have a lot to live up to—namely Peter Wimsey. That’s probably not fair, but Dorothy L. Sayers made Peter into a credible character, even at his most ridiculous undercover moments, and grew him into someone almost real. That’s a pretty high bar to jump over, granted, and I don’t actually demand my aristocratic amateur sleuths jump it, but I’d like them to at least get somewhere in the vicinity. At no point in the first 90 pages of that book, which was all I could stand, was Dandy Gilver a credible character or anywhere near an acceptable standard.
So if you’re not going to go that route, then you’d better give me a fun romp. That didn’t happen either. Because I found Dandy to be the Most. Annoying. Character. Ever. All very pleased with herself for no real reason, a bit full of herself, and not at all intuitive in terms of the situation as it was presented to her. Plus—if an aristocratic woman is going to pretend to be a lady’s maid, then she needs to actually know what the job entails and be able to do it if she’s going to pass muster with the rest of the household staff. And to do something about her posh accent besides invent some lame excuse about having been “genteel” and “come down in the world”. It’s also a bad idea to boss around the butler—he’s pretty much in charge of things, after all. I mean please, we all watch Downton Abbey. We know how the downstairs hierarchy works. Either the mistress’ household staff was full of the biggest dolts ever who couldn’t see through a really bad disguise or the reader was being asked to swallow a lot of codswallop. Either way, not a good foundation for a mystery. Plus the writing was nothing to write home about, and there was little in the way of backstory presented—it took me ages to work out who the supporting characters are and figure out that one of them was a dog. So, not good.
And hey, I had a whole box of books to choose from, so why stick with something that wasn’t interesting me, right?
Ironically, one of the other books I pulled out of the pile was also partially set in Scotland, also between the wars, and also involved an aristocratic young lady doing housework. Rhys Bowen, however, gets it right in Her Royal Spyness. The main character is Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, aka Georgie, half-sister to a Scottish Duke and 34th in line for the throne. Times are tough in 1932, however, and the Duke’s household must economize, meaning Georgie must do without her allowance. She’s hampered by her position in terms of working and has few options: she can go be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria’s last surviving daughter, she can allow herself to be married off to a blowhard Romanian Prince she calls Fish Face, or she can find a way to avoid that. To elude those dreary fates, however, she needs money. So she goes to London, gets sacked from a job at Harrods after a few hours, and has to learn to fend for herself with the help of her non-royal maternal grandfather, a retired bobby. Eventually she hits upon the idea of taking up light domestic work—just the stuff she can cope with, like dusting and fluffing—but she has to do it on the sly because she knows Her Majesty won’t approve.
Now see, if you’re going to write a fun romp, this is how you do it. And it was a fun book. There’s a sexy Irish peer with questionable motives for her (and the reader, of course) to fall in love with, for example, as well as an undercover job for The Queen spying on Georgie’s cousin David, The Prince of Wales, who has taken up with a most unsuitable American woman, nudge nudge. Oh, and a dead body in her bathtub. Which her brother Binky may or may not have put there.
As a mystery, it takes a while to get going, and honestly, I’d have enjoyed this just as much if it hadn’t been a mystery because Georgie is just such an engaging character. She’s spunky, she’s funny, and she’s not full of herself—she’s a typical young woman who just happens to be 34th in line for the throne. Bowen gets Georgie’s narrative voice just right—formal when necessary, delightfully charming otherwise—and tells her story through excerpts from her diaries. This is all frothy and lighthearted, and if the mystery elements tend to rely on coincidences, it’s hard to mind. Georgie has a bit of a Nancy Drew thing going with all the accidents-that-aren’t-accidents that happen to her, but she carries on, determined to clear Binky of the crime and learn how to work the boiler in the house.
Read this one for the characters and the humorous situations and try not to think too hard about the mystery elements—the solution is acceptable, although again, maybe a bit too much coincidence. But it was fun. I intend to add the remaining series entries to my TBR pile as soon as I can. I haven’t found something this outright enjoyable to read in ages.