Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II by Robert Lacey (Free Press)
It is no surprise that Lacey is an adviser on The Crown, since hardly anyone alive knows more about the English monarchy in general and Queen Elizabeth II in particular. One of the most underrated biographers at work today (his life of Henry Fords I &II is a masterwork that deserves to be much better known), Lacey turns Elizabeth into a three-dimensional person in a book that will forever change the way you see her. She’s funny, devoted to her job, and terribly smart—clearly she’s the most intelligent member of the royal family, so much so that you almost feel sorry for her having to deal with dolts all day. Lacey doesn’t worship the Queen, but he plainly respects her and likes her from afar, and his sentiments are contagious.
99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Ridiculous, pitiable, admirable, funny, curious, haughty, impulsive, maddening—and often all on the same page in this absorbing biography told in vignettes. Some of the “glimpses” are just that, lasting only a portion of a page, while others go on much longer. Brown never tries to sum up the late princess, but rather through a sort of collage of incidents and impressions, builds a portrait of a woman who was never very happy or fulfilled. But if her life was generally sad, she was never boring. On the contrary, her contemporaries couldn’t get enough of her, if only to see when she would flip—in a heartbeat—from the playgirl who sought to hang with the bohemians to the autocratic princess who insisted that everyone in the room defer to her. The Princess Margaret was a mess, but, as Brown so ably demonstrates, a fascinating mess.
It’s weird, given the English propensity for writing exhaustively about every single scrap of English life, that the royal family has so successfully escaped the scrutiny of English fiction writers. That alone would recommend these novels by Dickinson, who has created a fictional royal family based on the supposition that another of Victoria’s children survived and claimed the crown instead of Edward VII. But their delights are so manifest that they would stand out in any field, no matter how crowded. Both novels are nominally murder mysteries, solved by the intrepid Princess Louise, a teenager in King & Joker and an adult in its successor. But the idea with which Dickinson has the most fun—an idea that forever changes how you view the real-life royals—is that the monarchy is a business that must run smoothly if it is run at all. Louise’s father is always reminding her of this—there are duties to be performed, budgets to be kept, expectations to be met, and their subjects are their board of directors. And if the cleverness of that conceit were not enough, the mysteries in both books are equally entertaining.