Review: A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair

Review: A Royal Affair by Allison MontclairA Royal Affair (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery #2) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 28, 2020
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Goodreads

More goes wrong than could be imagined when Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau are unexpectedly engaged to dig into the past of a suitor of a royal princess in Allison Montclair’s delightful second novel, A Royal Affair.
In London 1946, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau is just beginning to take off and the proprietors, Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, are in need of a bigger office and a secretary to handle the growing demand. Unfortunately, they don't yet have the necessary means. So when a woman arrives—a cousin of Gwen's—with an interesting and quite remunerative proposition, they two of them are all ears.
The cousin, one Lady Matheson, works for the Queen in "some capacity" and is in need of some discreet investigation. It seems that the Princess Elizabeth has developed feelings for a dashing Greek prince and a blackmail note has arrived, alluding to some potentially damaging information about said prince. Wanting to keep this out of the palace gossip circles, but also needing to find out what skeletons might lurk in the prince's closet, the palace has quietly turned to Gwen and Iris. Without causing a stir, the two of them must now find out what secrets lurk in the prince's past, before his engagement to the future Queen of England is announced. And there's more at stake than the future of the Empire —there is their potential new office that lies in the balance.

My Review:

I picked this up because I absolutely adored the first book in this series, The Right Sort of Man. So I wanted to see what happened next to Sparks and Bainbridge.

In spite of the titles of the books, this is emphatically NOT a romance series. Set in the immediate post-World War II period, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge run a marriage bureau, called The Right Sort. As in they are looking to find the right sort of man or woman for their clients to marry. They get paid, not by the hour, but by their successful matchmaking.

But in the first book in the series, their matchmaking investigation leads them into a murder investigation – as the investigators. Which may, or may not, have been just the kind of notoriety they needed to get their fledgling business off the ground.

That notoriety, however, does bring them to the attention of the Palace. Buckingham Palace, that is.

The Queen – the one who became known as the “Queen Mum” – in the person of her confidential agent Lady Matheson, has a case for Sparks and Bainbridge that should be right up their alley. The only problem is that the alley in question is covered by the Official Secrets Act.

They want Sparks and Bainbridge to vet one of Lilibet’s suitors. Because whoever marries Lilibet, better known to history as Queen Elizabeth II, will become Prince Consort and the father of the next heir to the throne. While not King, whoever it is will still represent the United Kingdom on the world stage.

While kings and princes may later have scandals attached to their names – the debacle of Edward VII’s abdication is still in recent memory – the royal family can’t afford to let anyone in with a scandal already attached.

It’s obvious from recent photos, gleefully published by the gossip papers, that Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark is going to propose to Princess Elizabeth – and probably soon. It’s unfortunately clear from recent correspondence addressed to the Princess that someone has dirt on Philip.

Well, not exactly on Philip himself. After all, no one is responsible for the circumstances of their own birth. But even a hint of a question about whether said birth was legitimate will be more than enough scandal to wreck any possibility of his marrying the future Queen.

As well as throw a spanner into any possibility that his cousin, King George II of Greece, will ever get the chance to sit on his own throne.

It all sounds like a case that should be a bit too big for a simple marriage bureau to handle. But Sparks and Bainbridge are more than up to the job!

24th November 1947: Princess Elizabeth and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh enjoying a walk during their honeymoon at Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Escape Rating A-: After decades of pictures of Queen Elizabeth as matron, mother, grandmother and now great-grandmother, it’s hard to remember that once upon a time she was the young and beautiful princess in love with her very own handsome prince. But the pictures from the time when this story takes place, while they may or may not show the true state of the affection between Elizabeth and Philip certainly show them as being young and quite photogenic at the very least.

I was expecting this story to be more of the wonderful formula that we first saw in The Right Sort of Man, two women in a strong and developing friendship – or womance, to use the female equivalent of bromance. Iris and Gwen are from different backgrounds and have taken different roads to get where they are, but they each have something the other lacks.

Iris has street smarts, but more than that she has the training to use those smarts. Training that was honed during the late war in her service as an undercover operative doing things that would put her in prison in peacetime. Things that would have certainly gotten her killed if she had been caught. Which she wasn’t.

In addition to her deadlier skills, Iris also brings a whole host of “friends in low places” to their partnership. She can get things done. She can get bodies buried. She can get them into and out of trouble.

Gwen Bainbridge is a single mother being essentially held hostage by her wealthy in-laws. It’s a privileged life, but Gwen is very much the bird in the gilded cage. Working with Sparks is a way of keeping her sanity and giving her purpose – which also helps her keep her sanity. And it keeps her out of her in-laws house where they watch her like a hawk. After her husband’s death during the war, Gwen went into a slough of despond – she descended into a deep depression. During that period her in-laws took custody of her young son – their grandson. Now that she’s well on the mend, she wants custody back. And they are holding that over her head at every opportunity.

What Gwen brings to the partnership is her knowledge of the upper crust, and her membership in those rarefied circles as well as her Cambridge education. She can get them entree into places that would otherwise be closed to them, and can get information out of people who would otherwise show them the door – or at least the entrance to the servants’ quarters.

The progress of this case both makes their partnership stronger and shows the places where they still need to work on it. They are friends and partners, but there is also more than a hint of lingering resentment and jealousy on both sides, as each wishes they had some of the other’s circumstances or advantages. And they occasionally play one-upsmanship (up-womanship?) games with each other.

But it was the case that held my interest in this one. I was not expecting to get something that matched the espionage and governmental skullduggery that occurred in Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook, not even with a much happier ending. Especially not combined with the romance that forms the backdrop of The Gown.

These are two great tastes that I did not expect to even see together, let alone to discover that they taste great together. But they definitely do!

I hope that we’ll see more of Sparks & Bainbridge’s adventures. I can’t wait to see how they top this one!