Friday, 25 September 2015
Book of 1976: King and Joker by Peter Dickinson
[Princess Louise is in the study of her father, King Victor]
‘I wanted to find a picture of Nonny,’ she said. ‘I wanted to know if she was always so beautiful.’
He laughed his big raucous laugh, a curious sound coming from his neat and slightly podgy body. She could see him almost yawning with relief as he stretched to open a drawer of his desk. When he flicked the photograph towards her it twisted in the air so that she had to scrabble it off the floor.
It was an old one, originally black and white but now with yellowish tinges. Nonny was wearing a very simple polka dot dress and looking up into the camera… Louise could almost hear her laughter, though in reality it was only a soundless bubbling of pleasure in herself and the world around her. (You had to know Nonny very well before you found out that her pleasure might not solely spring from the fact that she was talking to you at the time.) She looked about 18, but you couldn’t tell – she still looked 15 years younger than she really was.
Louise gazed at the picture, suddenly happy with Nonny’s own happiness and the way it had lasted across the years.
observations: Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery told me that this was one of her favourite books, so I decided to copy her and read it for my 1976 book for Rich Westwood’s monthly Crime of the Century – his Past Offences blog is here, and you can read my August entry, and more about the meme, here.
King and Joker is a combination of a murder story, a satire on the UK Royal Family, and a version of alternate history. Dickinson has imagined a completely different family – based on the survival of a Prince of Wales, Prince Albert Victor, who in fact died in 1892. That’s all long in the past by now (the book is set in 1976) but the family inhabiting Buckingham Palace is completely different to what we’d expect: King Victor, his wife Queen Isabella, and the children Prince Albert and Princess Louise.
This is a much more modern, uptodate family than was actually the case. The King is a qualified medical doctor, Louise goes to a state school. There is a lot of talk of cutting costs, and a feeling that the family might have to work to try to keep the respect and affection of the people they call the Great British Public.
As a matter of fact this is very much a book and an attitude of 1976, in a way that might not have been at all clear at the time. It is never discussed now – and wasn’t much talked about then – but the Royal Family was NOT very important and respected in 1976. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee came the following year, and suddenly revived interest in what had become rather an anachronism – a Victorian family trying to haul themselves into the 20th century. The Silver Jubilee was unexpectedly successful, and gave some point back to the family. Then came the Thatcher years (1979 onwards), and the sudden appearance of Princess Diana (1981), and the world was set for Royals fever. The anti-Monarchists among us might have had some hope in 1976 (when the family was a lot less attractive than Dickinson’s imaginary one) but that all disappeared fast enough.
The book is an entertaining mystery: it starts with Princess Louise realizing that the Nonny above, private secretary to the Queen, is actually her father’s mistress. Her cogitations about this and other family matters run in parallel with a joker on the loose in the Palace, and eventually some deaths. Dickinson’s plotting is always intricate and very clever.
Miss Durdon, nanny to generations of the family, is a wonderful creation – even though the figure of the devoted family retainer allowed her own licence is very much overdone in literature. She is lying paralyzed in her bed, and we follow her thoughts and memories.
The whole book seems to be too short (not something I often complain about) – because Dickinson has imagined a massive alternate history, whole generations, marriages, children, deaths, scandals … Most of it is completely irrelevant and only hinted at, and the book is only 189 pages long. But it was very entertaining and I did enjoy it, although I thought the viciousness of the jokes was out of proportion to the eventual explanation.
There is a sequel, Skeleton in Waiting, which I intend to read soon.
A couple of other Peter Dickinson books have featured on the blog: Death of a Unicorn, and the question of the pencil skirt, and Some Deaths Before Dying, which I read because of a reference to it in Jo Walton’s marvellous Farthing.
And Jo Walton – who I’m guessing is a Dickinson fan – writes very perceptively about King and Joker here, as Tracy points out.
The picture is from Clover’s The Vintage Tumblr.