Karen Harper, The Queene's Christmas
(Thomas Dunne Books, 2003)
Adding a new dimension to a real figure adds a kick to historical fiction. The key is to cast the person plausibly, if the historical feel of the fiction is to be kept. The role doesn't have to be something that the person actually would have done, just something that the character can fall naturally into as the book progresses. In The Queene's Christmas, Karen Harper strives to graft the role of detective onto the Queen. Somewhat difficult to swallow at times, but the overall effort is a good one.
The Queene's Christmas works hard to establish the plausibility of Elizabeth's sleuthing, but this was a hard novel to get into. Accepting Queen Elizabeth I as a murder-solving detective, complete with her own Scooby gang, was difficult. You've got to give the author a chance to state her case, something that I struggled with. Queen Elizabeth, P.I. just didn't sit right at first. Once I got past this hang up and let myself sink into the story, the issue almost entirely faded away. This is the latest in a series of Elizabeth mysteries from Harper; readers familiar with these earlier novels won't have the issue I did.
The book leaps right in, with little introduction and a full list of characters. Murders and attempted murders threaten to disrupt the court's Christmas festivities, and only Queen Elizabeth and her trusted group of friends (nobles and commoners) can root out the murderer. See what I mean about the plausibility? If you can keep your skepticism in check for the first few chapters, the continuing series of crimes and parade of suspects will reward your efforts. Harper does a good job of creating the look and feel of a Tudor Christmas court, complete with period recipes to open (and set the tone for) each chapter. The intrigue of Elizabeth's court is conjured up very well and is a thoroughly convincing setting for a murder mystery. The plots within plots, scheming nobles, and devious diplomats create a host of possible suspects and motives. The verbal sparring alone makes for a delightful read.
The swirl of intrigue naturally found at a Renaissance court is a great setting for murder. There's more than enough going on behind the scenes, with everyone hiding their true motives, to cloud the investigation. Even when the identity of the murderer becomes apparent, you're still caught up in how the plotting and jockeying for position by the characters is going to play out. Whether or not you're familiar with the era and the actual lives of the characters, The Queene's Christmas keeps you interested in figuring out the characters' motivations and plans.