Picks and Pans Review: A Conspiracy of Crowns

updated 08/06/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alfred de Marigny with Mickey Herskowitz

Few men have proved as disappointing as Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. From a romantic high point—his 1936 abdication from England's throne "to marry the woman I love"—the Duke descended to reign feebly over a petty and pathetic realm of titled ne'er-do-wells and social climbers. Worse: weak-willed and none too intelligent, he frivolously, if inadvertently, allowed himself to become a Nazi pawn, flirting with Hitler while ostensibly backing a "negotiated peace." Small wonder that in 1940 he was shipped out to the Bahamas, which is where this real-life mystery begins.

On July 8, 1943, before dawn in Nassau, the crass Sir Harry Oakes, a Canadian gold tycoon, was murdered in his bed. Told of the crime, the Duke, by then the Bahamas' Governor, behaved with typical backbone: He shut the door and stayed in his bedroom. Soon, though, Oakes's abrasive son-in-law, farmer-businessman Count Alfred de Marigny, stood accused—framed, he here charges—with the complicity of the Duke, whom the Count had once called "a pimple on the face of the British Empire."

Little evidence connected de Marigny with the four wounds in Oakes's head—wounds Bahamian police never tied to a murder weapon. Fingerprint analysis was delegated to two detectives from Miami, who botched the job. Still, de Marigny was placed on trial.

Though he was acquitted, the languid Count (according to one press account, he spent much of the trial picking his teeth) found his life effectively wrecked. The jurors qualified his freedom: He must leave the Bahamas. For years de Marigny bounced from country to country, finding refuge in the U.S. in 1947. Along the odyssey, he broke up with his wife, who had stuck by him during the trial.

There is a smoky, almost dreamlike quality to this book that befits both the decadent setting and the faded memories of the author, now an octogenarian. He told this story in 1946 in an apparently spicier volume, More Devil Than Saint. This time, though, he names Oakes's killer: Harold Christie, a real estate promoter who was, the Count charges, part of a money-laundering ring that included Oakes, the Duke and reputed Nazi agent Axel Wenner-Gren.

Fair enough. Nobody's come up with a more plausible suspect. More interesting, yes—a 1972 book by Marshall Houts traced Sir Harry's death to mob financial genius Meyer Lansky—but not more plausible. (Crown, $19.95)

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