cjwatson: (Default)
[personal profile] cjwatson
Who: Peter Dickinson
Whence: Borrowed from [personal profile] liv and [personal profile] jack
What: Alternative-history poly-friendly murder mystery

King and Joker is a neatly-plotted murder mystery in the Christie mould, with some intriguing quirks.

The quirk closest to the surface (literally, as it's in the cover blurb) is that it's set in an alternate history: Prince Albert Victor survived influenza and became King Victor I, succeeded by his grandson, now Victor II; George V's line remain simply "the Yorks". While world history in general continued much as before, the royal family is of course utterly different: the King is a qualified medical doctor though not permitted to practise due to union rules, his son Albert is a vegetarian with his own private zoo, and most of the story is told through the eyes of his daughter Louise, who is thirteen and attending a state school by her own insistence. Some of this is obviously just for colour, but the more modest style means that the palace staff is of a more manageable size, which helps with the murder-mystery form; and it makes the family a good deal less forbidding than it might otherwise have been, although it still has some of the Christie-like quality of nostalgia for a certain flavour of English upper-class society. The King in particular is an excellently-drawn character, coming across more as a doctor with state duties than a monarch with a medical side interest, and much of the backstory is revealed gradually through his conversations with his daughter.

The next most obvious quirk, revealed quite early on, is that the King has a second partner in addition to the Queen; in some places she's described as his "mistress", but the family structure is clearly that of a mutually-consenting polyamorous triad. Even in an alternate 1970s United Kingdom they can't be open about this, but an important part of the story is not only the surface mystery but Louise's coming-of-age as she learns about her parents' relationship structure and comes to accept it. I was very impressed with how the triad was drawn: it's neither an exploitative King-and-his-harem scenario nor is it overly idealistic, but a loving family doing their best (and occasionally failing) to communicate and get by in unusual circumstances, and the polyamory is not just thrown in for effect but is integral to the plot.

At the start of the book, a practical joker is at work in the palace, beginning with replacing the King's breakfast ham with a toad from Albert's zoo. Quite soon the jokes get nastier. The palace's security staff investigate, Louise tries to work out what's going on in parallel with her own family disclosures, the police are called in, and the King does some of his own detective work on the side, all while the much-loved family nanny Ivy Durdon (Durdy) lies on her deathbed reflecting on her life.

Only one note in all this grated on me, and that was the treatment of Kinunu (Durdy's nurse) near the end. It made plot sense for her to have very poor English, a lower-class PoC nurse fitted in well with the general setting, and in general the book was written respectfully. I can't describe exactly what annoyed me without spoiling the whole plot, so I won't, but there was a point where somebody else described her as a "tease" and other similar terms and skated rather rapidly over the "informed" part of "informed consent"; and the scene felt generally more exploitative than it needed to be. On the other hand it was at least clearly presented as a mistake, without narrative approval; I would just have been more comfortable had that part of the plot been constructed differently.

Overall, I enjoyed this very much, and would gladly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the mystery genre.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-24 02:19 pm (UTC)
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
Thank you for this writeup - I realise this is the same Peter Dickinson who wrote The Weathermonger which I loved very much as a child. I'll add this to my list :-)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-24 04:40 pm (UTC)
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
I haven't read it in years so I don't know, but probably.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-24 04:07 pm (UTC)
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
From: [personal profile] liv
Ooh, this is a really nice review. I struggled to summarize the book and explain what I liked about it without spoilers, and I'm impressed that you found the balance here. I'm pleased about you enjoying my recs, too!

I felt uncomfortable with the Kinunu arc myself; I suspect that comes under the heading of the kind of gender thing that's changed enough in 40 years that even progressive for the era books look awful to a modern audience.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-24 02:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rysmiel.livejournal.com
This is one of those books that really ought to be better known, and I am very glad to hear of you enjoying it.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-03-10 11:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ghoti.livejournal.com
Had there been remorse, I could have forgiven it, as it was, it just seemed unnecessary.

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