The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen is a delightful read. It combines an old fashioned who done it mystery with social commentary, humor, true 1930s historical content, and fun loving characters.
The plot begins with Lady Georgiana (Georgie) Rannoch, 35th in line to the British throne, traveling to London to meet with Queen Mary. During this time period anyone in line to the British throne could not marry a Catholic. This presents a problem since her fiancé, Darcy, is Catholic. The only solution is for her to give up any claim to the throne, but she needs the support of the crown to ask permission from Parliament for this to happen. In the course of their discussion the Queen finds out Georgie will be traveling to Northern Italy to visit her good friend Belinda who is unwed and hiding out until she delivers her child. The Queen asks Georgie to attend a house party and spy on her son David, the Duke of Wales, who is heir to the throne. After arriving she finds also in attendance are Wallis Simpson; a Contessa, who was once Camilla Waddell-Walker, Georgie’s schoolmate; Count di Marola, Mussolini’s advisor; Baron Rudolf von Rosskopf; a German Nazi general and his aide; and Georgie’s mother, Claire, a former actress engaged to Max, a wealthy German industrialist. Much to Georgie’s surprise Darcy is also there camouflaging himself off as an English gardener. Besides the Queen, Darcy, who is believed to be part of English intelligence, asks her to spy on the guests, requesting her to become a fly on the wall, wanting her to be his eyes and ears.
It is apparent Bowen does not like Mrs. Simpson very much, probably because she “does not have any redeeming qualities except she was considered glamorous. She spent a lot on clothes, manipulated David, the future King of England who was known as Edward, and was so cutting to people. He wanted a mother figure to hug him, make him feel safe, and tell him what to do. She bossed him around a lot. Because she is not the nicest person in the world I enjoyed having her battle wits with Georgie’s mother who does not take her guff.”
The humorous and biting bickering between the houseguests occurs after the police sequester them. They are trying to find out the killer of one of the visitors, the Baron, who was flirtatious to the women and a blackmailer as well. The game of Clue comes to mind, who did it and with what weapon? Georgie now has her hands full as she tries to find the killer and the true purpose of why Mussolini’s assistant and the Nazi generals are in attendance.
Down the line Bowen will have to decide how to handle Claire, Georgie’s mother, and where “her loyalties lie? In this story, Max is manufacturing guns at his factories. In a future book she will have to decide if she wants to be a part of Germany or go home. Max is quite willing to play along with the Nazis because he is making a load of money. As I say in this book his family made a fortune during WWI by supplying all the weapons. He is not bad like Goebbels, but is morally blind.”
As with all her books, Bowen intertwines the culture, customs, and events of the time period. Readers learn about the life of the aristocracy, what is required of them, versus the common class. There is also the Conference in Stresa between England, France, and Italy to consider forming an alliance to stop the Nazi threat. Another conference, at the villa, hopes to convince the Prince of Wales that the threat of communism is much more worrisome than Hitler, who is painted as a leader helping Germany out of its dire economic situation.
Bowen noted, “I always go through the historical details that occur at the same time as the plot of the book. I see if there was a blizzard, big fire, conference, or treaty. When I found out about the 1935 Stresa Conference held by England, France, and Germany I wondered how it was possible. Remember Hitler and Mussolini were as thick as thieves, where Mussolini goes up to Germany and fawns all over Hitler. Why would he outwardly try to show he wanted to participate in combating the Nazi threat? Then I thought, what if there are other conferences going on behind the scenes for the opposite purpose. I wanted to have Georgie be a lamp with a lampshade secretly hearing what was spoken, inadvertently hearing things she should not.”