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Historical Mysteries

Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen, Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99.

Like all things PBS, BBC, and Royal? If you can answer "yes" to any of those, Her Royal Spyness is the book for you. Many readers, of course, are already familiar with Rhys Bowen's delightful Evan Evans and Molly Murphy books, and now this talented writer adds a third arrow to her quiver, in the form of a (very) minor royal, Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch. Mostly she's simply Georgie, and she moves in a set where the nicknames run to things like Binky, Whiffy and Fig. She's impoverished, though, as many a Jane Austen heroine has been, when her brother (Binky to you) takes over the drafty family castle in remote Scotland. As Georgie describes it, the winds are always whipping down the halls, the wallpaper in the loo is a ghastly tartan, and if possible, Castle Rannoch is draftier, more uncomfortable and colder than Balmoral.

Georgie is bored to tears at her brother's Scottish castle under the watchful eye of Fig, her sister in law, and Fig (ungraciously) and Binky (graciously) agree to letting her use their London house. Georgie has always had nannies and servants and is uncertain of how to do much else besides make a cup of tea - so she quickly enlists the aid of her cockney grandfather and learns to light a fire and do a few other useful household things. Being a royal, though, even a minor one, Georgie is uncertain how to scrape up an income and decides the best way to do it would be to establish herself as a service for opening up people's houses in town - dusting, airing the furniture, and running the carpet sweeper (her one encounter with a vacuum cleaner doesn't go well) - for a hefty fee, and best of all no contact with clients she might actually attend parties with. This seems to work quite well, but things become more complicated when an unpleasant Frenchman turns up claiming to have won Castle Rannoch fair and square in a card game with Georgie's unfortunate (and dead) father. Binky and Georgie can't figure out what to do, but then to make matters worse the Frenchman is discovered drowned in the bathtub of their townhouse.

Meanwhile, Georgie's relative, Queen Mary, asks Georgie to do a little spying for her. The scene where the hungry and impoverished Georgie has tea with the Queen - a delicious tea, but she can only eat the same brown bread slice the Queen permits herself - is a masterpiece of social dissection and humor. Queen Mary, of course, wants Georgie to spy on the Price of Wales' unsuitable American girlfriend, Wallis Simpson, who is portrayed by Bowen as an absolutely unpleasant monster. All this is set up in as delicate and frothy a manner as possible, but because Rhys Bowen is such a very top notch narrative storyteller, the underpinnings are so sturdy they carry this wisp of a book along and make something more solid out of it. I finished it in a matter of hours - you probably will too - and, if you're like me, you'll definitely be looking forward to Georgie's next adventure.

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