Heirs and Graces, Rhys Bowen
This is the seventh book in Rhys Bowen's "Royal Spyness" series of mysteries, featuring Lady Georgiana Rannoch. Lady Georgie is a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, 35th in line for the throne. The family estate has been crippled by her late father's gambling debts and death duties, and her allowance was cut off when she turned twenty-one. As a member of the Royal Family, however distant, she was not of course educated to earn a living, but she has resisted the family's attempts to marry her off to suitable foreign princes. She has also resisted the only other acceptable option, serving as a companion and lady-in-waiting to one of the elderly royal aunts. In the course of trying to support herself, Georgie has taken on several small assignments from her cousin, Queen Mary, which have brought her into danger and left her with mysteries to solve.
When the last book ended, Georgie was headed to London to stay with her mother, a glamorous actress who found life on the Rannoch estate in Scotland, not to mention marriage to the Duke, unendurable. After divorcing Georgie's father, she had a string of lovers and husbands, none of whom lasted long. As this book opens, in April of 1934, she is working on a memoir of her life on-stage and off, with Georgie as her secretary. However, when her latest lover, a German industrialist, writes to announce that he has bought her a villa in Switzerland, she immediately abandons book and daughter. Georgie has nowhere to go and no money. In desperation, she writes a note to Queen Mary, asking for any assistance or introductions that her Majesty could give.
In return, Georgie receives an invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace. There the Queen introduces her to the Dowager Duchess of Eynsford [and my brain immediately started singing, "I can see her now, Mrs. Freddie Einsford-Hill, in a wretched little flat above a store...."]. The Duchess has a problem: her older son, the current Duke, refuses flat out to marry and provide an her, and her younger son John was killed in the Great War. If the Duke dies without a heir, the estate reverts to the Crown. However, the family has recently learned that John married in Australia just before the war and fathered a child, whom he never met. This son, Jack, is now on his way to England. The Queen and the Dowager Duchess want Georgie to stay at the family's estate in Kent, to welcome the newly-discovered heir and to help him adjust to life in England and to his new position. Georgie, with no other options and thinking of spring-time in the country, is happy to accept.
When she arrives with the Duchess at Kingsdowne Place, she finds a tense atmosphere and a divided family. In addition to the Duke, the dowager's two dotty sisters are in residence, both widowed and with little money. The Duke's sister Irene is also staying with her three children, the eldest of whom suffered a riding accident that has left her in a wheelchair. Irene would like to take her to Switzerland for treatment, but since her husband, the Russian Count Streletzki, abandoned the family, she is dependent on her brother's charity, and he refuses to pay for it. Cedric, the duke, is spending his money instead on becoming a patron of the arts, supporting playwrights, dancers and composers, whom he invites to stay. When Georgie sees these handsome, willowy young men, she understands why the Duke refuses to make a dynastic marriage. He is planning to build an amphitheatre on the estate grounds, though that will mean tearing down some elderly tenants' cottages. Both Cedric and Irene are angry at the news of their Australian nephew, and both openly doubt that he is the true heir. Irene thinks that the title and estate should go to her son Nicholas rather than some colonial outsider.
When Jack arrives, he confirms all the family's worst fears. He is straight off a sheep station, and in fact he would prefer to be back there. Georgie has her hands full trying to smooth some of his rough edges and explain the ways of his noble family to him. But Cedric refuses to accept Jack, and one evening he stuns his family with the announcement that he plans to adopt his handsome young French valet and make him the heir. The next morning, the Duke's body is discovered on the grounds, with Jack's distinctive knife stuck in his back, and Georgie finds herself in the middle of another murder investigation.
This is an interesting country-house murder mystery combined with a Downton-esque family saga. Initially I thought we might be in for a version of Georgette Heyer's The Unknown Ajax, with a unwelcome heir who plays with his family's low expectations. But Jack is the epitome of a brash young Colonial, complete with a stock of colorfully inappropriate phrases (Ms. Bowen herself lived in Australia for several years). I particularly enjoyed the two dotty aunts, one of whom organizes séances where the Ouija board gives Georgie the clue to the duke's murder.
I had one quibble, with regard to titles and address. When Jack arrives, the Dowager insists on presenting him as the Viscount Farningham. Since he is the nephew of the current Duke, not his son, and is only the heir presumptive, he does not take the heir's courtesy title. The Dowager would have known that, unless she is pressing a point to have him accepted. Georgie also addresses the Dowager and the Duke constantly as "Your Grace." As their social equal, if not outranking them as a minor Royal, she would address them as Duke and Duchess (as Dorothy Sayers and Angela Thirkell's characters do in books set in the same period). Georgie would know that only social inferiors and servants use "Your Grace."
I had a bigger problem with the solution to the murder, though (spoilers follow, so I'll leave a bit of space).
I don't like mysteries where children commit murder. Here it is accidental, but the children seem to show no remorse, no awareness that their actions killed their uncle. They take what happened very lightly, and in fact they are almost rewarded, by being sent off to boarding school as they have long wished. It's not that I want them sent to prison, or severely punished, but seeing them scampering off to play in the end left a bad taste in my mouth. Even in a cozy or light-hearted mystery like this, no matter how unpleasant the victim, Justice is due to the dead.
This completes the Peril the First I undertook for the RIP VIII Challenge.