Review: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen

Cover art: a stylized illustration of a young lady with a wavy blond bob, looking at us over her shoulder. She's seated in a lawn chair overlooking a formal Italian garden with manicured hedges and a fountain. A classical villa behind her sits on the shores of a lake, with mountains beyond.I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to like this book. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure if I could finish it at all.

The most frustrating thing was that by rights I ought to love this story. The premise is fantastic: Lady Georgianna Rannoch (Georgie to her friends) is the epitome of a fish-out-of-water amateur sleuth. She’s 35th in line to the British throne, under the reign of King George V in 1935. Her aristocratic lineage dictated a strictly sheltered upbringing, with the formal manners and rigid expectations of her station. On the other hand, her mother was an actress with Cockney roots who married well. Georgie has a strong sense of duty and is eager to please, but she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere.

From time to time during the series, her cousin Queen Mary will ask her for a favor that requires the discretion of a family member and the whiff of desperation only a poor relation could provide. These favors always seem to get Georgie in over her head with thefts, murders, and (on this occasion) international intrigue.

There are lovely 1930’s clothes, gorgeous palaces, delightfully retro manners and protocols, comically bad or frighteningly efficient servants, a dashing love interest — everything you could want in a cozy mystery romp.

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service is the 11th book in Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness series. We find Georgie in a nearly-deserted Irish castle, where she wistfully thinks through a story update for readers who’ve just arrived. She’s become engaged to a charming Irish-Catholic nobleman named Darcy. Unfortunately, Darcy also does “favors” for the Crown, but in his case they’re official missions for the secret service. He’s been sent away to parts unknown, leaving her lonely and bored.

Her position in the line of succession means that she can’t marry a Catholic without renouncing her claim. She’s more than willing, but it’s not really up to her. She’s frustrated by bureaucratic delays and wonders if they’re politically motivated.

Finally, Georgie receives two letters. One is from an old friend in Italy requesting her help, and the other is from the Queen, asking her to tea. Grateful for something constructive to do, she decides to answer both invitations on one trip.

Her tea with the Queen puts to rest her fears about Parliamentary approval for her marriage, but she’s also tasked with another family favor: to keep an eye on the Prince of Wales on his upcoming trip to Italy. The Queen does not approve of the Prince’s relationship with Mrs. Wallis Simpson, and fears they may try to marry in secret.  By an amazing coincidence, the Prince will be staying practically next door to Georgie’s troubled friend, and the Queen arranges for Georgie to join the house party.

From this point in the story right through the midpoint, I struggled. Georgie’s trip forces her to come to terms with the effects of her upbringing, but by default instead of decision. She’s nearly incapable of doing anything for herself, but she’s lost her maid. She’s terrified of both the practical and social implications of traveling alone but can’t seem to get up the gumption to do anything about it. She drifts fecklessly from one family member to another, hoping someone will solve her problems for her. When they don’t, she can’t be bothered to solve them for herself and just puts up with them.

She continues to flop like a wet noodle across Europe, so consumed with her own thoughts and feelings that she barely notices anything around her. Even when the author shoves glaring dangers, traps, or clues onto the page, Georgie notices everything except the most obvious facts.

There’s an international political conference going on at her destination in Italy, for world leaders to discuss the growing Nazi threat. Oddly enough, there are also a bunch of Germans staying at the same villa as the Prince of Wales. Georgie’s more concerned about the etiquette of greeting her hostess.

There’s a creepy Count who broke into her berth on the train and accosted her with unwanted advances. He’s staying in the next room, and Georgie’s terrified he might try again. She steps out onto the balcony to enjoy the jasmine and wisteria growing up the pillars — then leaves her french windows open and goes peacefully to bed.

I suppose it could be humor. I just wanted to smack her around.

We finally got some spying toward the midpoint of the story. I’ll try not to spoil it, but since I’ve already mentioned 1935, Nazis, and the Prince of Wales on the same page, anyone with a smattering of history will be far less surprised than Georgie at what she overhears.

We have to wait several more chapters for the murder, but at least Georgie starts to tune into her surroundings and show a little common sense. Once there’s actual blood spilt, she straightens up and becomes positively plucky.

The latter half of the book picks up the pace nicely, with plenty of dramatic suspicions, conflict, intrigue, suspense, and even some quite commendable derring-do from our heroine. When she finally takes matters into her own hands, she shows herself to be both capable and intelligent (if a little erratic and impulsive). If this version of Georgie had shown up at the beginning, I could have enjoyed it unreservedly.

The stakes and solution of the mystery are set up well. The “whodunnit” isn’t a huge surprise, but there are some juicy twists in the “whydunnit” that make up for the rather heavy foreshadowing.

A condensed square version of the cover art, with dominant colors of purple, green, and yellow.All in all, the book delivers a fun and satisfying second half that more than redeems the problems of the first. I’ll happily separate my personal taste from the craft of the storytelling, and give it four stars. If you enjoy more introspective character development (or aren’t as irritated by women acting vapid), you’ll probably rate it higher. On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service is available in Kindle, hardback, or Audible audiobook.

By request, I include a “Squick Factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material.

This lighthearted story has very little potential squick. The manner of death is unpleasant but not outlandish. Georgie must overcome her squeamishness to pursue her investigation, but she carries the burden rather than offloading it to the reader. I give the story a Squick Factor of 1.

Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!

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