Mrs Queen Takes the Train
Allen & Unwin, $29.99
Alan Bennett imagined the Queen as an avid book lover in The Uncommon Reader. Now a US historian imagines her AWOL from Buckingham Palace to lift herself out of depression.
First-time novelist William Kuhn makes a jokey reference to his English competitor-counterpart, the chap whose idea he knocked off but whom he acknowledges on page 167. ''Didn't read it. Fancy making me out to be a reader,'' Her Majesty protests of Bennett's characterisation. No matter. Kuhn has pulled off an entertaining ride inside the head of the Queen, who learns she cannot take the private train to Balmoral Castle because of government penny pinching.
Through the french windows, she escapes to the stables, where her groom hands her a skull-emblazoned hoodie to keep her warm, and off she wanders into the streets of London.
When it's discovered that she's missing, panic ensues at the palace. Her staff must find her before MI5 and the media expose yet another royal scandal.
As the Queen boards the train she is mistaken for Helen Mirren by … that's enough! No more plot giveaways.
It already sounds too goofy for words, but what holds it together in an Upstairs Downstairs way are the minders' romantic entanglements and snobberies, and aggro with the royals - the last generation versus this - all laid out gossipingly for the reader.
More poignantly, there are HM's ruminations on her life. Marriage to Philip; his philandering (which she accepts); Princess Diana's depression, for which the Queen now feels sympathy; the divorce; and her constant advice (always ignored): ''Give it six months, then decide.''
TV crews crowd the palace, filming. Tony Snowdon and Cecil Beaton were OK, but now it's Vanity Fair's bossy Annie Leibovitz ordering the Queen to take off her tiara - it's too dressy. ''Too dressy? What do you think this is?'' HM explodes. Full marks to Kuhn's research. Not a nasty word is said against the Queen, who is affectionate (especially to dogs) and humorous (teasing her secretary for showing off his tan).
Until, suddenly, the mood changes.
Anne, a lady-in-waiting who is about to retire and is penniless after a lifetime of devoted, but badly paid, service, is gobsmacked when HM says: ''I have set aside one of the Queen Mother's sticks for you, as a way of saying thank you.'' Nailed.