This is a hereditary “who-dunnit.” The victim is Charles II, ill-fated biological specimen of Hapsburg inbreeding, who served as the last feeble representative of that dynasty and whose death in 1700 at the age of thirty-nine plunged Europe into the conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession.
Newspaperman and novelist John Langdon-Davies brings a facile pen to bis examination of Spanish history during Charles II’s reign, although the result is more like a good mystery story than serious history. The leading characters are reproduced in bold bigger-than-life strokes of the brush. There is poor Juana la Loca, the mad queen, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, whose demented condition, reasons Mr. Langdon-Davies, was compounded by cross breeding; and inter-marriage until Carlos II was the product of two family trees in which Juana la Loca appeared eight times—seven of the eight great-grandparents of Carlos II descended from the mad queen!
Carlos was not a particularly bright child: “defective in speech and subject to fits; teeth which would not meet to masticate the immense burdens that unnatural gluttony threw against them; chronic indigestion; horrible gout … all … worked together to produce a pathological inability to make up his mind and a tendency to religious gloom which militated against clear political thinking.”
Although Charles is the subject of the book, his relations are not neglected. There is his errant father, Philip IV, and Don Juan de Austria, Philip’s bastard son; strong-willed Mariana of Austria, the poor king’s mother; Marie Louise, Carlos’ first wife, said to be a French spy for Louis XIV; and the second wife, María Ana of Neuburg. Through the book there runs a thread of witchcraft, superstition, poison, and the Devil. So fascinated is the author with his material that he spends an entire chapter on the 1680 auto-de-fé in Madrid in tones little removed from the Black Legend of yore.
The author is so concerned with the royal bickering and sterility of the king that he fails to note that this part of Spain was not ALL of Spain; little is said about the people except that they were invariably hungry. Nothing is said about Spain’s American possessions during the reign of Carlos II; perhaps the author cares little about such minor matters. After all, what he is concerned with is the private life of Carlos II. He adds but little to the subject, but his flair for an ironic phrase makes up for his superficial analysis of Spain under Carlos II.