Death of a Princess: The Investigation

by Thomas Sancton and Scott MacLeod

published by St. Martin's Press

300 pages, 1998


Buy it online






Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Britain's Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris in the late summer of 1997. A wash of media unlike anything seen before ensured that there were few people in the western world who weren't aware of the circumstances of the accident as well as the most minute details of the woman's life.

At the time it seemed like there was no escaping hearing about it: this was bigger than a declaration of war, it seemed. Larger than the death of a saint or the assassination of a president. More: for a while it looked like the world would take as much Diana-news as the media could dish out. Television and radio stations ran 24-hour updates; newspapers devoted gallons of ink and even whole sections to the tragedy as well as the woman herself; her face graced countless magazine covers and sites sprang up all over the Web discussing her life, her loves and her untimely death. And then there were the books. On shelves, it seemed, almost as soon as the news broke. Followed by more books. And, just when you thought there couldn't be another, still more.

That being the case, the question that must spring somewhat naturally to mind is: why yet another Diana book? Why now, half a year after the Princess death are we subjected to yet another look? By all accounts, however, Death of a Princess is doing remarkably well: jumping out of fresh cartons and onto the bestseller lists, a hit almost before it hit the book stores.

Death of a Princess is an odd dichotomy of flavors and smells. It makes compelling reading: in much the same way that traffic accidents can be compelling diversions. Death of a Princess is the ultimate traffic accident, after all. 300 hard cover pages of tragedy, and very few of those pages are covered with pictures.

What makes the book work beyond the mere Diana word that so many other books have relied on is the very real journalistic talents of authors Sancton and MacLeod. What those of us on the sidelines last summer saw -- whether we wanted to or not -- were facts and half-facts, sometimes nailed together with only the weakest glue or the barest nod at truths. In any case, we got a lot of it all in the wrong order. It was as it happens, after all.

You can call them the Woodward and Bernstein of DianaGate if you will, but what Sancton and MacLeod have done is brought their considerable experience as investigative reporters together into a book that seems likely to bring in barrels of cash, even if it doesn't win Pulitzers. There's a pretty good investigative reportage pedigree here. Thomas Sancton is presently Paris bureau chief of Time magazine. A former Rhodes scholar, he's been with Time since 1979.

Scott MacLeod is no lightweight either. Also Paris-based, MacLeod is Time magazine's Middle East correspondent and has covered the most important stories from that region of the world in the last 15-odd years. He was in place during the Gulf War, the freeing of Nelson Mandela and Mandela's subsequent election as president. He was also one of the first American journalists on the scene of Diana's fatal Paris crash, at least partly because the accident occurred about a block from his home.

With journalistic backgrounds like these, one would expect nothing less than a first-rate book chock full of facts, and that is precisely what Death of a Princess is made of. Facts and some conjecture: though the conjecture is thankfully in other peoples voices.

Diana fans will delight: all of the pieces are here. Even some of the ones that were missing before. We're given portraits of Diana's decision to vacation at St. Tropez in July of 1997; her first meeting with Dodi Fayed; the British press's disapproval of the affair and so on, through the couple's death and the investigation that followed. The chapter headings from the book give clues to the sequence the authors have chosen for their work. A few here: No Escape, Fighting for Life, Postmortems, Parallel Lives, Dodi, The Pharaoh of Knightsbridge, St. Tropez, The Kiss, The Last Day and so on, right through to the last, ominous chapter: Was it Murder?

Sancton and MacLeod begin, as good reporters will, at the beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, at the beginning of the end, with arrangements being made for the limousine that would ultimately carry the princess to her death. We're shown the paparazzi stamping their collective feet outside the hotel while Diana's entourage plans to deke out the back. I won't go on: the details are well-known and are upsetting to some and tedious to others. "Been there, done that: now what's this about a book?"

The work isn't as arid as one might expect. Sancton and MacLeod have done a good job in telling a story that is both fact-filled and interesting to read. For example, here we meet Mohammed Al Fayed -- Dodi's father -- at Harrods, Christmastime 1997:

Although the 40-day Muslim mourning period is over, he continues to grieve for Dodi and Diana: the tie adorning his Turnbull and Asser shirt is black. It is clear that he feels as if he has lost not only a son, but two children, and at a moment when such happiness for them was in the offing. He notes that he has received condolence messages from Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Edward, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

This is a book written by journalists, so we don't know for certain if the cynicism some of us might read in these few lines is real or imagined. But this sort of careful wordsmithing is present throughout the work and keeps the reader on their toes.

While we've certainly seen enough pictures of the princess in the months since her death to last a lifetime, I still would have liked to have seen more pictures in Death of a Princess. The few included illustrate the story very well: photos of Diana at St. Tropez on the Fayed's yacht; in the Fayed family compound; the much-used photos of Diana and entourage taken by the Paris Ritz security cameras; a photo of the car being taken away; a couple from the funeral and so on. Eighteen black and white photos in all, though nothing that most people haven't seen in their local newspaper by now.

Death of a Princess is a must-read for Royal-watchers and the acolytes of the deceased princess. The rest of us might just wait for the movie.



Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Mad Money.