I loved Allison Montclair’s first Sparks and Bainbridge mystery, The Right Sort of Man, and anticipated the second. Is there anything better than a summer holiday, with only a modicum of work obligations, to enjoy an anticipated book?
A Royal Affair takes Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge out of their humble business start and into the highest echelons of royal matters, to the possible engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Someone, however, doesn’t want this to take place. A blackmailer, with damning letters involving the prince’s mother, Princess Alice, and intrigues implicating Greek leftists (anti-monarchist, of course) and those who would restore Greece’s ersatz (sorry, my side is showing) royal family, who, where I come from, are neither royal, nor Greek. This lent a moue of disappointment reading the mystery novel, but it is strictly a personal one and I can still heartily recommend the series and this addition to it. To set the scene, Lady Matheson, Gwen’s cousin, arrives at London-based Right Sort Marriage Bureau with a task for Gwen and Iris: to search out the person, or persons, who seek to destroy the union between the handsome Greek prince and the future queen.
With a promised hefty fee and the ambition of new business digs with sufficient funds, Iris and Gwen throw themselves to the task. What they unearth is unsavory in every way: government agents playing many sides, shifty leftist and royalist Greeks showing up dead and too-dangerously-alive, mercenary, shadowy figures seeking advantage; self-interest and political expediency are encountered at every turn, with an occasional ghostly appearance by the thorns in Gwen and Iris’s pasts. Our intrepid heroines, however, are the defenders of true love and see it through to a glorious end.
Monclair’s accomplishment lies in her creation of two utterly delightful amateur detectives, Gwen and Iris and their feminist, banter-filled partnership. Women crime fiction writers have created the lone detective figure in a female; the cozy has its share of amateur bakers and gardeners finding poison in the cupcakes and a corpse in the copse, but I delight in Montclair’s central focus on this female partnership, friendship, and business association. Gwen and Iris’s banter is quick, smart, and witty, especially in this slyly subversive “rejection” of the Holmes and Watson formula:
“You like me being the Watson to your Holmes, don’t you? said Gwen. “What? Where did you get that silly idea?” “Our first adventure. You flouting your education and your secret training while I trailed along, taking all my cues from you and blundering about.” “I had the education and I had the training,” said Iris. “You roped me into that mess because I had them and you needed them. So who was following whom?” “You enjoyed every moment of it, playing your characters, getting into rows, putting your life on the line … ” “Saving yours,” Iris reminded her. “Yes, and don’t think I’m not forever in your debt for that,” said Gwen. “But we were equal partners in that investigation, and we should be equal partners in this one.” “Fine, you’re not Watson,” said Iris. “If I’m Holmes, who are you?” “I’ll be Bulldog Drummond,” declared Gwen.
This is mere introduction to Gwen and Iris’s developping relationship. In this volume, we see Gwen taking the forefront (indeed, it’s her sleuthing that makes for a magnificent revelation scene at the end) and Iris expresses a vulnerability only glimpsed in The Right Sort of Man. The emphasis on equality and acknowledging and admitting each other’s unique qualities and skills become the core of how their partnership evolves. There’s a beautiful moment when Iris gives the floor to Gwen and basks in her success.
In my preferred crime fiction, no matter how flawed in personality, the detecting figure(s) must have a moral compass and it must point towards justice. Because there is a flair of romantic readiness in Gwen and Iris, justice is intermingled with a service to love. Though not a romance, Sparks and Bainbridge are romance’s ladies-not-in-waiting, but in-service. I adored this exchange between Iris and Gwen working out their business’s purpose and meaning, as they tried to decide whether to take Lady Matheson’s case and, more importantly, why. It had to fit with their mission:
“What is it that we are doing at The Right Sort, Iris?” “We run a marriage bureau,” said Iris. “Exactly. We bring people together. We each came to this enterprise from a different direction but with the same goals — part altruism, part fun, part profit, part whatever. Part friendship, I would hope.” “That, for me, is the largest part.” “For me as well,” said Gwen. “But what we do here is in the service of love. It sounds corny, I know, but it’s the truth. Don’t you agree?”
Because Gwen and Iris’s cause is just; their hearts, true; motives, pure; and, their friendship, forged with the deepest bonds of affection, fun, and shared values, we travel with them to the assured HEA, not theirs, but their client’s. And the client, well, you’ll see … it’s a marvellous scene. Lastly, while I loved A Royal Affair, I do have a bone to pick with Montclair and it’s this:
Gwen held out her hand. Iris placed the flask in it. “I say,” said Sally as she tilted it back. “Go easy. That’s hard to get.” “It’s terrible,” said Gwen, replacing the cap. “What is it?” “Canadian.” “We never should have colonised the place,” she said.
I will tolerate Greek pro-monarchists for a good read, but insult my country’s whiskey, you’re getting a downgrade, Montclair. 😉 Still, Miss Austen swayed me and we say A Royal Affair is the stuff of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Allison Montclair’s A Royal Affair is published by Minotaur Books. It was released on July 28 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Please note I received an e-galley of A Royal Affair from Minotaur Books, via Netgalley.