Death of a Princess: The Investigation

Remember Princess Diana? Prince Charles’ ex, nice wardrobe, died with her boyfriend in a car crash on Labor Day weekend? Sure you do: Elton John sang a song about her. The death of Diana was our biggest news last fall. And yet the full story is emerging so slowly that the parade has moved on to the next big thing. Now it’s Monica Lewinsky’s face we study, and we talk about her boyfriends and her dresses (well, at least one of them). Because Monica’s story is even juicier. She’s American, for one thing, so there’s no palace machinery to protect her. She’s blabbier. And she’s alive, so we can tail her from coast to coast. Diana? Honey, at this point, she’s been reduced in stature from a saint to a collectible doll.

Meanwhile, the story of Diana’s death remains unfinished, unsatisfying to an easily distracted audience that prefers intoxicating speed to cold facts. We still don’t know — not really — about the last months of Diana’s life, or about her relationship with Dodi Fayed. Toxicology reports have proved that driver Henri Paul was exceedingly drunk at the time of the crash, but we still don’t know what part the Fiat played in the accident, because the car has never been found. We don’t know what that signifies. And whether, at this point, we need to care: The princess is still dead. And we’ve got Monica Lewinsky to kick around.

It’s all the more eye-catching, then, what Thomas Sancton and Scott MacLeod have done in Death of a Princess: The Investigation (St. Martin’s). Sancton, the Paris bureau chief of Time, and MacLeod, Time‘s Paris-based Middle East correspondent, cover a lot of familiar ground. But they also serve as textbook models of methodical reporting — the kind I would hope for but not always count on, in the Drudge Age, from a newsmagazine. Freely pointing out reasonable doubt along the way, the reporters stack their hard-won facts into neat bundles of evidence. They don’t dare reach any categorical conclusions. But they do make some news.

For one thing, based on interviews with specialists, the writers suggest that given what is known of her injuries and how long she remained alive after impact, Diana might have — might have — survived had she arrived at a hospital sooner. But that’s nothing; there’s also this: “While falling short of concrete proof, the information available at this point leaves open the possibility that Diana may have been pregnant.” True, the rumors have been around. But by assembling a mess of circumstantial evidence (and by emphasizing what has not been ruled out), Sancton and MacLeod give the notion far greater credibility, even as they fire off words of caution along the way: “Questioned by the authors about the claim that blood tests taken on Diana’s [hospital] arrival confirmed her pregnancy, officials…refused to deny or confirm the account.” (Good reporters the two are, inspired writers they’re not: Once Paul’s complicity in the tragedy overtook the notion of paparazzi as murderers, the Fayed team “came down on the memory of their former employee like a ton of bricks.”)

Diana and Dodi would have likely married, the reporters suggest. Which leads to what is, quietly, the most explosive “hmmm, maybe” in this weirdly engrossing book: that the accident that killed Diana and her Egyptian lover (Mac-Leod’s Middle Eastern expertise contributes to the refreshing sensitivity with which Fayed is treated) may have been forced. By British intelligence? So Diana wouldn’t marry an Arab and bear a Muslim child? What happened to that Fiat, anyhow?

Sancton and MacLeod say they’re just telling what they know — “none of which, of course, even remotely proves the existence of any cover-up.” Yet they are seasoned enough to know that somewhere under a “lid of secrecy” the truth may lie. And so the digging continues, even after the circus has left town. When they’re through, please, can they tackle the case of Lewinsky’s dress? B

Death of a Princess: The Investigation