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by Christine Wells
William Morrow, September 2023
352 pages
ISBN: 0063268248

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In THE ROYAL WINDSOR SECRET, author Christine Wells presents a coming-of-age novel about Cleo Davenport, a young woman who has grown up in the care of—but without much supervision from—a guardian in Cairo, living in Shepheard's hotel with the staff as her friends and a boy named Brodie as her primary companion. When she turns 16, Cleo's guardian's family arrives to take her to London to be presented at court and have her coming-out season. We follow her over the next several years, from 1935 to 1952, as she grows up, studies to become a jewelry designer, has romances, does her part for the war effort, and, eventually, matures and figures out what's most important to her and how to get it.

Where, you may be asking yourself, is the mystery here? After all, at reviewingtheevidence.com, we review mysteries. As touted on the novel's cover, the main mystery seems to be Cleo's parentage. Is she or is she not the Duke of Windsor's (he of abdication and Wallis Simpson renown) illegitimate daughter? Granted, not every mystery needs to be a murder nor even a crime, but to propel a mystery novel, the mystery itself needs to be something someone cares about solving or resolving. Here, neither the reader nor Cleo herself cares very much about whether or not the Duke is her father. (Cleo claims from time to time to desperately want to know who her parents are, but circumstances prevent her from being able to do much investigating, and then there are the distractions of romances, building a career, and a war.)

On the other hand, weaving around the edges of Cleo's story is the story of Marguerite Meller Fahmy, a Parisian courtesan who had an affair with the Duke of Windsor when he was still the Prince of Wales and who may or may not be Cleo's mother. Fans of Lucy Worsley's “Ladykillers” podcast also know that Marguerite Fahmy was a real person who was tried for murder in 1923. No spoilers here for those unfamiliar with Marguerite, but it was apparently her tale that first intrigued Wells and caused her to begin to tie other events together to create THE ROYAL WINDSOR SECRET in which she combines real and fictional characters and imagines Marguerite's life before and after the events of 1923.

The resulting novel, however, is primarily about Cleo, and it works to great extent as a coming-of-age story (it lags at times and skims a little too lightly over some of the political machinations and the horrors of war, but this is not a World War II novel, so, while the omissions are noticeable, they're understandable in context). The handling of the questions of the murder and Cleo's parentage work less well as far as trying to make this a mystery novel of any sort. Bottom line is, it's not. But Cleo, in particular, is a well-developed and believable character, and some of the scenes in Paris and on the Riviera are particularly nicely done. While there are no surprises in plot or character, THE ROYAL WINDSOR SECRET is still a good escapist read for those wanting to spend time in the glamorous world of French and English aristocracy in the 1930s and '40s, with a bit of romance thrown in for added interest.

§ Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, January 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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