As a small offering to the finale of the Platinum Jubilee long weekend, I thought it would be jolly to review this zinger of a book. First published in 2020, the same year as The Thursday Murder Club, the first of Richard Osman’s crime fiction series about OAP sleuths, The Windsor Knot delights with a similar combination of wicked irreverence, compassion and incisiveness and a similar regard for the prowess of the elderly. Is it too fanciful to suggest that these two novels, both published in the first year of lockdown and therefore written before COVID struck, sparkle with a pre-pandemic joy that is only slowly being rekindled in fiction?
The Windsor Knot tells the story of a murder that takes place in 2016 at Windsor Castle after a soirée that the Queen has agreed to host for wealthy Russians to please Prince Charles, who is hoping for donations to one of his charities. Some of the guests are invited to stay the night and the following morning one of the performers, a young dancer with whom the Queen herself has danced, is found hanged in a cupboard. At first, he seems to have accidentally suffocated whilst engaging in an arcane sexual practice – Bennett has a lot of fun depicting a scene between the Queen and her private secretary in which the latter tries to explain the nature of this practice while cloaking it with a delicate vagueness that immediately causes the Queen to probe further: as she later remarks with terse precision to Prince Philip – who has just observed that the young dancer had been ‘strung up like a Tory MP’ – the official cause of death was ‘autoerotic asphyxiation’. She had looked it up on her iPad.
The Queen, however, comes to realise the accidental death notion won’t wash. Reluctantly she accepts that the young Russian has been murdered and then, with increasing enthusiasm, sets out to uncover the killer. I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as it would be certain to introduce some spoilers; but suffice it to say that at every twist and turn she displays a commonsense attitude coupled with uncanny acumen and impressive levels of expertise in all sorts of areas that perfectly reflect what the actual Queen allows to be known of her character.
As well as trying to shield her from the seamy side of life, people with whom the Queen comes into contact regularly patronise her. She accepts this behaviour with a grace and wry amusement that is shared with the reader. Here she is with Gavin Humphreys, the new Director General of MI5:
She stopped in her tracks, calling briefly to the dogs, who were keen to keep going. ‘Assassination?’ she repeated. ‘That seems unlikely.’
‘Oh, no at all,’ Humphreys said, with an indulgent smile. ‘You underestimate President Putin.’
The Queen considered that she did not underestimate President Putin, thank you very much, and resented being told she did. ‘Do explain.’
There are several prescient accounts of geopolitical events that had not occurred when the book was written but have happened since, the sinister references to Putin included. There are also some scenes that are both funny and sad, particularly those between the Queen and Prince Philip, who in the novel is semi-retired from public life, but still very much alive. About to set off on a trip to Scotland, he asks the Queen if he can bring anything back for her: ‘Fudge? Nicola Sturgeon’s head on a platter?’
‘Actually,’ she said, as he bent arthritically to drop a kiss on her forehead, ‘I wouldn’t mind some fudge.’
Poignantly, the Queen as she appears in The Windsor Knot is ‘only’ eighty-nine and still in robust good health, as the real Queen was at that age. There is now a sharp contrast between this fictional figure and the frail if still beautiful and determined matriarch full of years who appeared so briefly on the balcony of Buckingham Palace last Thursday. The jacket of the book – again, by coincidence – sharpens up the pathos with its illustrations of the Queen’s familiar black handbag, the Queen herself dressed in powder blue, a brooch pinned high on her chest, in an outfit very similar to the one she was wearing last week.
This is a brilliant novel: it sends up the establishment, but only very gently, it offers huge laugh-aloud entertainment, it’s a great whodunnit and, for those who care to look for them, it offers some profound insights into Britishness and what makes the British nations tick. It sparkles with wit but most decidedly is not ‘cosy crime’ – a term I abhor and which is used far too loosely to pigeonhole a work of crime fiction that is not filled with gore and violence on every page. It is crime fiction for grown-ups. I had never encountered S.J. Bennett’s work before I bought this book. The blurb tells us that she ‘wrote several award-winning books for teenagers before turning to adult mysteries.’ I understand that there are already three titles in the Her Majesty the Queen Investigates series. I shall certainly read the others. I hope the real Queen knows about them and has found time to read them, too, as they would certainly make her laugh.