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The royals seeking safe haven in the Big House


The Secret Guests

Benjamin Black

Penguin, paperback, 288 pages, €12.60


Tipperary tale: the new novel by Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, is based on a persistent local rumour. Photo by Tony Gavin

Tipperary tale: the new novel by Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, is based on a persistent local rumour. Photo by Tony Gavin

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black


Tipperary tale: the new novel by Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, is based on a persistent local rumour. Photo by Tony Gavin

On a warm October afternoon in 1940, three men are having lunch in Dublin's Kildare Street Club. They are Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Daniel Hegarty, or Dan the Man as he likes to be called, Richard Lascelles, a senior official from the British Embassy, and Garda Sergeant Strafford, a son of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy who, as far as he knew, is the only Protestant detective on the force.

Lascelles has a proposition for Dan the Man. In return for a regular supply of coal, one of the few resources a battered and beleaguered Britain has in plenty at this stage of World War II, King George VI's government requires Éamon De Valera's neutral Ireland to shelter two high-born young girls who must leave London immediately because of the Luftwaffe's deadly nightly bombing raids.

The British government, Lascelles explained, had already been in touch with William Fitzherbert, the Duke of Edenmore, a distant relative of the girls, who lives in Clonmillis Hall in Co Tipperary.

Edenmore is willing to take them in, and the estate is considered remote and secure enough to be a safe haven. Strafford, being Anglo-Irish, instantly knows who these high-born girls are, and he is only mildly surprised when, a week or so later, he finds himself dispatched to the decaying, cold and draughty Clonmillis Hall as part of the princesses' security team, the only other member of which is newly-fledged MI5 agent Celia Nashe.

The children's arrival in Clonmillis does not go unnoticed, nor does the fact that a small detachment of Irish troops led by a Major Vivion De Valera are making a rather poor job of concealing themselves around the estate. Within days, the owner of the local hardware shop Tom Clancy, known to all in the village as Boss Clancy, the self-appointed leader of "the Lads" becomes aware of their presence. The Lads are 'politicals' dedicated to reuniting the country by driving the Brits out of Northern Ireland.

Behind their backs, Clancy and the Lads are regarded locally as something of a joke, all bark and little or no bite, but when Boss Clancy makes contact with some substantially more dangerous people in Belfast, the stakes are raised considerably.

The plot thickens when a hapless local n'er-do-well, Joey Harte, is accidentally shot dead by one of Major De Valera's soldiers, and a newspaper photograph of a family group with the two young visitors' heads circled in pencil is found on his body. All parties suddenly realise what is at stake and scramble to contain a potentially serious international incident.

BW Black, or Benjamin Black, the author of this light-hearted, amusing and elegantly written thriller, is of course the alter ego of multi-award winning Irish literary icon John Banville. In a Guardian article some years ago, Banville described the birth of his mystery-writing alter ego, who he describes as his dark and twin brother.

Driving along the Howth Road in Dublin, the words of his agent Ed Victor suddenly surfaced in his mind.

In an effort to broaden his admired but somewhat high-browed client's popular appeal, Victor had asked him to consider writing a crime novel. In a blinding flash of inspiration, he recalled that years ago he had penned a long-shelved TV crime drama series set in 1950s Dublin that could be turned into a novel.

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Within weeks he had installed himself in a bolt-hole in Tuscany and had opened a new jotter and, as Benjamin Black, had inscribed the words 'Christine Falls', on the first page. He was surprised to find that by noon he had written 1,500 words, an amount "poor Banville" might have managed in a week. This, of course, was the first of the seven-strong Quirke crime series featuring a testy middle-aged Dublin pathologist.

The Secret Guests, a stand-alone work, is clearly based on the long-held and persistent local rumour that the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spent a short spell in Tipperary at the height of the Blitz.

Neither Black nor Banvillle can write a clumsy sentence, so from its leisurely development to frantic denouement, this is a delightful and immersive book thanks to its graceful language and deft characterisations.

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