Book of 1976: King and Joker by Peter Dickinson



published 1976



KIng and Joker 1976



[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.
















Comments

  1. Oh, this does sound interesting, Moira, as much on a social level as anything else.I always like that element of taking a look at the social customs and attitudes of the time when the book was written, and of course 1976 was quite the time. Thanks for reminding us, too, of attitudes towards the Royals. They've certainly gone back and forth over the years!

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    1. Yes indeed, and I found all those aspects of the book unexpectedly interesting. Tracy does always recommend the best books.

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  2. 99% certain he doesn't feature in the tubs. I can't say I'm a Royalist either, though I have somewhat mellowed over the years. I still think a lot of them are parasites, but I do admire the queen. I actually think Prince Philip is my favourite!
    Not a fan of alternate histories either, so I'll avoid.

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    1. Not even with Tracy AND me recommending? I'm not usually much of an alt-hist fan myself, but I did enjoy this one. But probably not hard-core enough for you...

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  3. This sounds like a much funnier read than the supposedly funny book I chose for 1976 - which proves that I should listen to trusted advisers like Tracy instead of making my own choices :) And I don't mind an alternative history narrative.

    Your comments reminded me of how the notion of Australia de-coupling itself from the British Royals waxes and wanes in popularity - when I was in primary school (1972-79) one of my teachers was a rabid republican - she turned the classroom picture of the Queen (standard issue I guess?) to face the wall at the beginning of the year and no one else who entered the room ever turned it back - we got a year long lesson in why the Royals were bad and there was much wider agreement outside the classroom. These days you're hard pressed to find anyone who cares that much about the issue and there's no doubt the movement has lost almost all of its oomph.

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    1. That's very interesting about the Australian view, Bernadette. It's funny the way revolutionary ideas come and go... I'd have assumed republicanism in Australia would have won out by now, and if you'd told me in 1976 that the monarchy would be virtually unchanged in 2015 I'd have been very surprised.

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    2. I'm surprised too. I'm definitely in the anti Royal camp (though like you I do have admiration for the current Queen) but I'm something of a rarity. I suppose no one I know is a fervent Royalist but not many get too worked up about getting rid of the whole preposterous system. I guess there are so many other things people get outraged about these days....not enough outrage to go around :)

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    3. Very good theory Bernadette - I guess there are worse things! but there did seem to be a lot more anti-Royalist sentiment when I was young - is it that people changed their minds, or did I start mixing with different people?

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  4. I am glad you reviewed this too and covered the Royals and whether it made sense and whether the historical elements fit. It seemed like they would to me but I can't remember much about those years now, here or in the UK. Glen and I were also recently wondering about the opinions of the Royals in the UK and what function they serve. Your comments were illuminating.

    I always like alternate histories when I read them but I have to push myself to do that. I have not yet read SS-GB by Len Deighton for that very reason.

    I love this book regardless of any flaws. I am eager to read Skeleton in Waiting but don't know when I will have time for it. I still have not read Death of a Unicorn or Some Deaths Before Dying. Tefuga is my second favorite after King and Joker.

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    1. I don't have much time for the Royals, and never have, but I'm surprised by how few of my friends share my views! I think most people have some admiration for the Queen (even me) but I think the Royal Family are over-privileged parasites, and the idea that 'they work hard' is rubbish.

      But yes, I really like the book! I am so glad you brought it back into my consciousness.

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  5. I've got UNICORN on the TBR but after your reviews and Tracy's I just have to get this one too - thanks Moira, can't wait to get a copy now!

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    1. He is SUCH an interesting writer Sergio, I've admired him for years. And if you do take to him, there is a whole long list of his books...

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