19 Aug 2014
India Black and the Widow of Windsor. By Carol K. Carr.
There are plenty of Queen Victoria mystery novels that focus too much on getting the details right. Judging by the second book in the India Black mystery series, Carol K. Carr knows when to stick to the historical line and when to veer off into reader-pleasing areas.
India Black is young, beautiful and the madam of an exclusive brothel in the better part of Victorian London. She is also a secret agent, recruited by no less than the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, through French, his agent (and her potential love interest).
It’s an absurd, ahistorical set-up, but it allows Black and French to play their parts in foiling plots against the British Empire, with Disraeli acting as Charlie for his two Angels.
This time, Queen Victoria is maneuvered through a séance with her late husband to visit Balmoral Castle in Scotland for the Christmas holidays. A Scottish independence group, led by its mysterious leader (natch), plans to assassinate her there. Disraeli catches wind of this, and sends French to suss out the aristocrats trailing in the queen’s wake, while Black impersonates a maid to check out the servants.
It’s not a job that Black looks forward to, but she’s become bored with her business and relishes the chance for a little excitement. Nor is she concerned so much about protecting the queen. She lists “Vicky’s” unhealthy obsession with her dead husband, the presence of her Indian retainers, and her constant companion John Brown. There’s also her list of prohibited activities, which includes talking loudly in her presence, coal fires or bringing bishops to lunch. “Just like my potty old aunt Dorothy,” Black muses. “Completely harmless.”
That’s the first sign that Carr is not above pulling out the rug instead of tugging her forelock. Once the action shifts to Balmoral, “Widow of Windsor” shifts closer to realism. The castle is ill-heated by the queen’s orders. The guests are boring and bored. The queen is dull when she’s not stuffing her face at the table. Then there’s Bertie, the future king, who’s chasing after every woman in skirts when he’s not dodging his wife. After awhile, you’re hoping for an assassination attempt. At least it would liven the place up.
Meanwhile, Black spends her time as a maid chivvying an ancient marchioness with a disastrous taste for snuff, exploring the castle, and following the servants. While she’s sneaking about and attempting to avoid the wandering hands of the Prince of Wales, French gets drunk and ingratiates himself with the young bloods.Told in Black’s acerbic, sometimes witty voice, “India Black and the Widow of Windsor” is a cozy mystery that expertly dodges the implications of having a sex worker as its heroine. At the same time, it gets the important bits right historically. Victoria’s court was shallow and boring. The assassination attempts, instead of being brilliantly planned by supervillains, are low-key and similar to the eight attempts Victoria encountered. Even the agencies tasked with protecting her engaged in keeping secrets of their own and bureaucratic turf wars that feel sadly all too real.
Writing a realistic novel that also encourages the reader to turn the pages is a difficult task. Many authors fail because they indulge themselves so much in getting the details right that they forget to tell an engaging story. It’s a lesson Carr did not forget. “Widow of Windsor” is an amusing journey and India Black is an engaging companion.