It is unclear why this new novel by Benjamin Black - the genre fiction guise of John Banville - comes under the author name 'BW Black'. While not one of the Quirke mysteries that the esteemed writer has based his parallel alter-ego on, The Secret Guests is more closely related to Prague Nights, his 2018 historical murder mystery.
It could be that Wexford's 'other' laureate wishes to distance himself further from the narrator of these spirited and overtly arch yarns. Whether 1950s Dublin in the case of Quirke, or the imperial Bohemia setting of Prague Nights, ideas of the Booker-winner wielding a sock puppet to indulge his love of thriller writing can be a distraction.
Banville's affection for racier climes wafts off the pages here, to the point that The Secret Guests is almost a giddy experience that lays out its cast of characters and scenes as if in anticipation of its own TV adaptation. (In fact, he had originally pitched the idea to the BBC but the project never took flight.)
Some years ago, an irresistible rumour reached Banville: during the Blitz, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were smuggled out of London to Tipperary to keep them safe from harm without the need to run the treacherous North Atlantic gauntlet to Canada. He duly fleshed out the idea, knowing full well that such a backdrop presents so many themes that the action could be placed against and sparked off.
We open with a shady meeting in a private members' club in Dublin. A suave British embassy representative asks a favour of the Irish minister for external affairs, promising coal in return for the girls' safe harbour. Watching on is Strafford, a Garda detective of Protestant stock. Right off the bat, Banville is awakening the myriad complexities in the fledgling state, from post-colonial hangovers to the dynamics of the Catholic and Protestant social branches.
The girls themselves offer so much colour - their privilege, their tender age, the emerging hormonal beat fighting against the enforced composure of royalty.
Escorting them to deepest, darkest Tipperary is Celia Nashe, a Special Branch operative who despite her excellence needed her father's pull to secure transfer to MI5 (such were the times women lived in, Banville reminds us).
Clonmillis awaits them, a crumbling pile that is the ancestral home of a distant relative and their lodgings until peace has returned to London's skies. The house is riddled with the decay of the landed aristocracy, but threats loom out in the woods and the local village. The servants are told little about the intriguing new arrivals, but with everyone watching everyone else as they do in rural Ireland, hiding the girls is ambitious. Add to this a local band of Republican die-hards for whom the war never ended.
Lighter than Black's other titles but still cantering along with a great appreciation for atmosphere, shaded corners and slowly converging elements, The Secret Guests gives great bang for its buck.
Its tale of strange girls in a strange land as the rest of the world is at war manages to be uncomplicated and direct, and yet to be doing lots of things out of sight that make themselves known in the denouement.
Similarly, that episodic pace is a steady march while allowing lay-bys to pad out a character or debrief overseas readers on Anglo-Irish relations during the Emergency. What timing for such a tale to be told.
The Secret Guests