For a thousand year old castle, it’s certainly not the first time a violent death has happened within its walls. But it’s still shocking when Windsor Castle staff discover the body of a young Russian pianist in the wardrobe of a guest room deep within what is one of the most secure citadels in the world—and more so when that death is revealed as a murder. Her Majesty the Queen is of course horrified to hear the news—she had danced with the man only the previous night—but when police and MI-6 suspects that Russia is behind the crime with a possible mole, she knows what she has to do. In SJ Bennett’s adult debut, The Windsor Knot, Elizabeth II—queen, mother, state figurehead—takes on her newest role: the most discreet detective known to a very select few. It might seem unlikely at first—she is among the most documented individuals for most of this and the last century—but the duties of queenship sets her up rather nicely for the trails of detection. Diplomatic skill? Check. Top security clearance? Naturally. Friends in high places? It’s hard to get much higher. And the ability to skillfully steer people into doing what she wants without making it appear so? Been at it since 1952. When police start to suspect members of the Queen’s staff, including retainers who have been with her for decades, the pressure is on to find the real culprit.
But obviously a queen can’t wear out her shoe leather on the street gathering clues, and for that HM taps her dedicated assistant private secretary, Rosemary ‘Rozie’ Oshodi. Rozie isn’t a typical royal courtier—as a Black war veteran who grew up in a decidedly unglamorous part of London, she’s still settling into her new role at the Queen’s side. But as the eyes and ears of the Queen outside of royal residences, Rozie is a quick study. Her background makes her well-suited to moving between the rarified world of Mayfair hotels favored by Russian oligarchs to combating a hit man on the London Underground. Rozie is at first reluctant to take on the role; she is after all, new to her position, and initially unsure what it is, exactly, that Her Majesty is trying to do. But as Rozie funnels clues to her boss, she learns that sleuthing is nothing new to the Queen. This is probably where Bennett’s book holds the most promise. As sleuths from Miss Marple onward have demonstrated, the ‘little old lady’—which even some of Her Majesty’s courtiers regard Elizabeth as—is so often overlooked and underestimated, when they are in fact best suited to draw on their experience and powers of observation to make effective detectives. And as an octogenarian who has lived through the tumult of the twentieth century and a sometimes rocky reign, Elizabeth is no fool. Rozie learns that Elizabeth has in fact been solving crimes throughout her reign, and done so effectively and quietly that almost no one is the wiser for it.
The Windsor Knot is the first in Bennett’s projected series featuring the Queen as sleuth, and as the first book is set in early 2016, it seems possible that forthcoming books will actually move back in time and pick up the stories of those earlier crimes to which The Windsor Knot hints. Bennett’s portrait of the queen is warm and affectionate, with her insights into behind-the-scenes palace life much of the fun. (Prince Philip even comes off as an irascible hoot.) Likewise, her depiction of Rozie is well done, and she appears not as a subordinate to Her Majesty, but a full partner in the Queen’s efforts to see justice done. The Windsor Knot is best recommended to fans of all things royal, especially Netflix’s The Crown, but readers of cozy mysteries, such as Christie, M. C. Beaton, C. Alan Bradley and the like will feel right at home—even if that home is Windsor Castle.