When your country is being ravaged by war, what parent would turn down the opportunity to send their children to a safer venue? Of course, not every parent has that option, but as imagined by Benjamin Black (the pen name used by John Banville when he writes a thriller) in The Secret Guests, a certain notable couple jumps at the opportunity to shield a future queen of England from harm.
The novel opens in London during the Blitz, as 10-year-old Princess Margaret looks out the palace window to watch the devastation. Her father, King George VI, arranges a plan whereby Margaret and her older sister Elizabeth are shipped off to neutral Ireland while he and the queen consort stay in London “to show Mr. Hitler we’re not afraid of him and his bombs.”
The rest of this subtle if occasionally slow-moving novel is set in Ireland, where the girls, referred to as Mary and Ellen to protect their identities, reside in Clonmillis Hall, a stately residence so dilapidated that when a diplomat knocks on the front door, it falls backward into the house.
Accompanying the girls are a young Irish detective named Strafford, “one of the very few non-Catholics on the Garda force,” and Celia Nashe, a female secret agent in Britain’s Special Branch who poses as the girls’ governess. Among the book’s many satisfying elements is the portrayal of the prejudice that Strafford and Nashe face in their careers, with Strafford being “the only Protestant at detective level” and an outlier among his countrymen, and Nashe dealing with male colleagues who don’t want “bloody women” among their ranks.
But these are secondary to the main storyline: keeping the girls safe, not just from the German bombing campaign but also from groups who might wish to capture the children to further their political goals.
“I don’t see how it could be possible to hate an entire people,” Strafford says to Nashe midway through the book. At its best, The Secret Guests memorably shows the many forms that hatred can take.