"When you're done binge-watching The Crown, pick up this multifaceted wartime thriller."
As London endures nightly German bombings, Britain’s secret service whisks the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret from England, seeking safety for the young royals on an old estate in Ireland.
Ahead of the German Blitz during World War II, English parents from every social class sent their children to the countryside for safety, displacing more than three million young offspring. In The Secret Guests, the British royal family takes this evacuation a step further, secretly moving the princesses to the estate of the Duke of Edenmore in “neutral” Ireland.
A female English secret agent, Miss Celia Nashe, and a young Irish detective, Garda Strafford, are assigned to watch over “Ellen” and “Mary” at Clonmillis Hall. But the Irish stable hand, the housemaid, the formidable housekeeper, the Duke himself, and other Irish townspeople, some of whom lost family to English gunshots during the War of Independence, go freely about their business in and around the great house. Soon suspicions about the guests’ true identities percolate, a dangerous boredom sets in for the princesses, and, within and without Clonmillis acreage, passions as well as stakes rise.
Benjamin Black, who has good information that the princesses were indeed in Ireland for a time during the Blitz, draws readers into a novel as fascinating as the nascent career of Miss Nashe, as tender as the homesickness of the sisters, as intriguing as Irish-English relations during WWII, and as suspenseful and ultimately action-packed as war itself.
An intriguing premise can't save this plodding what-if historical thriller from Edgar-finalist Black (Wolf on a String), the pen name of John Banville. During the Battle of Britain, with London under steady assault from German bombers, George VI decides that his daughters, 14-year-old Elizabeth and 10-year-old Margaret, should be moved from Buckingham Palace to a place of safety. The princesses are transported in the dead of night to the neutral Republic of Ireland, where they are to live, under pseudonyms, at the Duke of Edenmore's isolated estate in County Tipperary. In exchange for that accommodation, Britain will supply Ireland with regular shipments of coal. An MI5 agent, Celia Nashe, who's charged with their protection, accompanies them. Though the identities of the girls is a closely guarded secret, Celia fears that the truth will be uncovered, placing them in peril from Irish nationalists eager to score a major propaganda coup by attacking or abducting them. A romantic subplot involving Celia fails to engage, and the anticlimactic ending disappoints. Fans of this gifted writer will hope for better next time.