Rhys Bowen is my go-to author when I need a laugh. So, in service of this month’s topic, humor, I bought her last audiobook in the Royal Spyness series, Crowned and Dangerous, and began critically listening in hopes of understanding why she’s funny.
My first point will be: it helps that she has a talented reader. Katherine Kellgren’s voice reminds me of Dudley Do-right’s girlfriend, Nell Fenwick. One just expects funny from her.
Ms. Kellgren narrates in first person as the Lady Georgianna Rannoch, the 35th person in line to the throne of England. The stories are set between the first and second world wars, a time during which, as all of who watched Downton Abbey knows, was hard on aristocrats.
Just stop and think about that for a moment. I, for one, being Irish, do not naturally feel sorry for the progeny of in-bred descendants of Norman thuggery who have dominated the social, economic and political structures of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales for centuries, yet when this one aristocrat falls on hard times, I feel sorry for her – a tribute to the author’s talent.
Georgie’s father lost the bulk of the family fortune gambling on the Riviera, so when he died, passing the title and lands to her brother, Binky, there wasn’t enough left over for Georgie. She is impoverished and must make her own way.
Nevertheless, she is up-beat, self-effacing, resourceful and self-reliant. In every story, the first question is (even before the whodunit): where is Georgie going to live and how is she going to get fed? Not naturally funny material, but the author works it. In earlier books, Georgie sometimes lived in the family’s London home without servants or heating, scrounging for income at various amusing occupations to support herself. She failed as a model. She failed as a housekeeper. She failed working the perfume counter of a department store. These situations often give rise to some amusing slap-stick like clutzy accidents in front of the Queen, or becoming entangled as she dons haute couture. And, all the while, she is dreaming of marrying her Anglo-Irish boyfriend, the charming and handsome, but penniless, Darcy O’Mara. They will live on love.
Along the way, Georgie meets an amusing cast of characters reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s comedies of society: the stingy Yorkshire innkeeper, the snobbish German countess who doesn’t understand British idioms, the slinky Polish ex-pat princess, the lecherous Frenchman, the sinister, scheming Mrs. Wallis Simpson and the overly-familiar, over-fed and incompetent maid, Queenie.
Because the tone of the books is uplifting, putting the reader in a receptive mood for humor, when the slapstick appears, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s been said before: dying is easy, comedy is hard, and I don’t know how she does it. Conjuring these silly romps amongst the royals is Rhys Bowen’s talent and gift to her readers. Brava, Ms. Bowen!
So, Mysteristas: what authors make you laugh out loud?