Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Mrs Bradley, Nancy Drew and Queen Elizabeth II. While this formidable bunch of women might not commonly be grouped together, they are all united by one particular attribute: they’re all exceptionally talented and prolific amateur sleuths. Yet, although the myriad cases solved by the first four are well known to crime fiction fans, the investigative exploits of the Queen largely passed unnoticed before SJ Bennett decided to chronicle them in the Her Majesty the Queen Investigates series, which began with The Windsor Knot.
In the second book in the series, A Three Dog Problem, 2016 is shaping up to be another annus horribilis for the Queen. The Brexit referendum, the forthcoming US presidential election and the impending palace renovation all seem fraught with difficulty for one expected to maintain the appearance of impartiality and reserve at all times. Perhaps due to the many uncertainties facing her in the immediate future, the Queen finds herself increasingly ruminating on the past and the people she has lost over the years, which leaves her in a distinctly melancholy mood as she wanders the corridors of Buckingham Palace, and that’s before her private secretary stumbles upon a dead body by the palace’s swimming pool.
Sir Simon Holcroft is keen to improve his fitness and, because he’s equally keen that no one should know about it, decides to visit the pool at 6am. As bad as he anticipates his new exercise regimen to be, Sir Simon is in no way prepared for the shocking scene at the side of the pool: the blood-soaked body of long-time housekeeper Cynthia Harris, a favourite of the Queen who happened to be rather unpopular with other members of the royal household. It appears that Mrs Harris was cleaning up the detritus of a late-night pool party when she slipped and fell on a discarded whisky glass that then shattered and punctured the artery just above her ankle. While the press are quick to blame Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie for the deadly party paraphernalia, the authorities are equally quick to determine that Mrs Harris’s death was a tragic accident. The Queen, however, is not so sure.
Prior to the death, Her Majesty was already vexed by another puzzle at the palace: the disappearance at some point within the last several decades of a painting of the Royal Yacht Britannia by Australian artist Vernon Hooker. Despite being derided by Prince Philip and others knowledgeable regarding art, the painting held special significance for the Queen and had formally hung outside her bedroom door. It had been removed as part of the palace refurbishment during the 1990s and the Queen had lost track of it until, quite by chance, she spotted it hanging in the corridor at Semaphore House in Portsmouth. Determined to reacquire her painting and discover how the Second Sea Lord came to have it, the Queen tasked her Assistant Private Secretary Rozie Oshodi with investigating the matter. Only now, she also needs Rozie to look into the circumstances of Mrs Harris’s death.
Elizabeth II has had the feeling that something isn’t quite right in the palace for a while now and the two incidents seem to prove that her deductions are once again correct, but what’s she going to think when someone finally dares to tell her about the poison pen letters that have been circulating among palace staff?
Similar to her approach in The Windsor Knot, the Queen’s investigative exploits in A Three Dog Problem are more cerebral than active and action-packed. She’s increasingly aware of the widespread opinion among those who do not know her very well that she’s a posh and pleasant yet decidedly unknowledgeable and unworldly old biddy, and she uses this misapprehension to her advantage whenever possible. Due to the need to keep up regal appearances, she can’t just don a deerstalker and rush off to investigate whenever a potential crime comes to her attention. Rather, she has to rely on her little grey cells and her ability to subtly prompt the police, MI5/MI6 bigwigs and members of the royal household to look in the right directions and draw the right conclusions. Fortunately, when a particular investigation demands more concrete involvement, she has former soldier Rozie to do the legwork for her.
Establishing Queen Elizabeth II in the Nero Wolfe role and positioning Rozie as her Archie Goodwin-like assistant is a great move that allows SJ Bennett to pull off a pretty outlandish setup and render the unlikely scenario of the Queen as a secret supersleuth strangely believable. While the solving of crimes might not tie in with the popular image of a reigning monarch, the fact that the Queen has to fit her sleuthing in among various royal engagements and seemingly endless paperwork does ring true, as does the fact that she is able to achieve so much because people simultaneously underestimate her life experiences and capabilities and overestimate her reserve and reticence. The need to keep up appearances gives rise to a number of funny scenes, particularly the circumstance that leads to the Queen hiding in a cupboard while eavesdropping on some staff and being concerned about the state of her joints.
Such vignettes are not the only amusing aspect of the book, as Bennett really seems to capture characters of leading royals such as the Queen and Prince Philip and she uses them to great effect. There are plenty of quips and witty one-liners to enjoy, particularly from Prince Philip, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as amusing asides about royals who don’t actually feature in the story. Sometimes, it’s as interesting to see who isn’t mentioned as it is to read about those who are. It’s also a lot of fun to see how the other, fictional characters interact with the royals. These elements make the story a fairly gentle and humorous read, although the mysteries behind the disappearing painting, the poison pen letters and the death of Mrs Harris are still intriguing and nicely complex. There are certainly plenty of puzzles for readers to solve alongside the Queen.
A Three Dog Problem is an entertaining and engaging crime novel featuring an admirable number of twists and turns that need unpicking. It’s an excellent example of the gentle/cosy mystery genre, and it should particularly appeal to fans of Richard Osman’s The Thursday Mystery Club and The Man Who Died Twice.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars