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The Secret Guests

By: B.W.Black, Penguin Books

There has long been a rumor, no evidence or proof at all, that the two daughters of the king and queen of Britain, were evacuated to neutral Ireland during the early days of World War II.

“The Irish Times” in a recent review of The Secret Guests says, “the book is a sort of speculative historical fiction…”

The time is 1940 and the book is set in Ireland. The girls were given assumed names: Ellen and Mary. They are princesses and Ellen is the future heir of the crown, she is Queen Elizabeth today. The book is an intriguing mystery, and the language used throughout is compellingly beautiful. Great psychological insight is shown too.
About the beauty of the book’s language “The Wall Street Journal” says, “the lyrical magic is shown in scenes that unfold with a poet’s grace.”

After Hitler and the Nazi forces had conquered most of Europe, they brought their full fury on Britain. During 1940, their constant bombing raids on London and other major cities led to many children being evacuated to rural areas for safety.

The British King and Queen felt it their patriotic duty to remain in London. The princesses could have been evacuated to Scotland, but fear of a planned Nazi invasion of the United Kingdom prevented this. No place had the range to fly to Canada and the Atlantic was too dangerous due to the submarines. So, neutral Ireland was chosen.
However, it was only twenty years since the Black and Tans, Auxiliaries, and the British Army terrorized Ireland. Painful memories hadn’t gone away.

The British Secret Service chose Tipperary as the place of refuge for the princesses. What were they thinking? Tipperary had a strong, century’s old, republican tradition. The Secret Service sets the scene for powerful drama.

This amazing book was written by B.W. Black. Who is B.W. Black?

B.W. Black is the pen name of acclaimed Irish novelist John Banville. He was born in Wexford in 1945. He lives in Dublin with his wife and two daughters. The mysteries he writes have great psychological insight. “The Washington Times” says about him and the mysteries he creates: “There are very few writers who can write elegantly about murder, but there is no question that Benjamin Black is one of them.”

John Banville won the Man Booker Prize. It is the leading literary award in the English speaking world. It is “awarded to the best novel of the year written in English.” The review of The Secret Guests in “The Irish Times” said, “Banville has had a long fascination with individuals who conceal their true selves…” We will see this clearly with the person the British Embassy sends to take the princesses to Clonmillis Hall.

The British Secret Service, with the British Embassy, choose as the place in Ireland for refuge to be in Tipperary. The Garda sends the young Irish detective Strafford to watch the princesses and to keep them safe. He is a keen observer and has the gift of knowing when to keep his mouth shut.

Detective Strafford says, “Ireland has been held in British over lordship for eight hundred years…and although the larger part of the country was independent now, that it had been occupied for so long had a potent, abiding and visceral significance for a considerable portion of the population.”

The competency of the British Secret Service, and the British Embassy, could be questioned. This is because instead of being understated—they sent princesses and their minders in a Bentley. Instead of not drawing attention, this luxurious and stately car meant that everyone knew that something important was up.

Detective Strafford observes of the British Embassy official driving the Bentley: “He was one of those languid-seeming Englishmen…with a ruthless light glinting behind a carefully maintained easy-going smile. He wore a British Warm overcoat and glossy, handmade brogues and wore a bowler hat…”

Saying little during the ride, the detective observes: the Embassy official “was handsome, in a refined, yet brutal sort of way, with a narrow forehead and high cheekbones and dark, oddly glintly eyes. His skin had a leathery quality as if he had spent many years in an equatorial climate.”

They arrive, finally, and the girls climb the front steps to Clonmillis Hall. Strafford observes, “They walked with slow, deliberate tread, as they had been trained to do since they were toddlers. In their buttoned-up coats, neat hats and brown leather gloves, their pink handbags looped over their wrists, they had a quaint, grave, antique look to them. Months pass peacefully, when Strafford learns from sources that it’s known who the girls are.”

He tells Celia Nashe, the Secret Service minder, “The girls, we have to move them. Men will be coming. They’re set fire to the wood.” The man from the embassy, with his Bentley, had recently been staying at the Hall. They went down the front stairs in a flurry and got into the car, Celia in the back with the girls, “and the detective in the passenger seat. Doors slammed, the engine gave a deep throated roar, the rear wheels threw-up twin sprays of gravel.”

The car was driven at a very high speed: “the car streaked forward…” They rounded a “curve in the road when they saw the Ford stopped in front of them…” The driver “jammed his foot on the brake and the Bentley…crashed into the ditch…” The car’s headlights were still on, two out from behind the Ford.” “One had a semi-automatic pistol…” Then, the shooting began.

Later, when had gotten back to the Hall, the embassy official “had hurried off somewhere and furtive. Strafford wondered if he might have soiled himself—when he had followed the Englishman in he’d thought he caught a fecal whiff. Also, he had the suspicion that the fellow had not been knocked out when the car had plunged into the ditch, that he had feigned unconsciousness. If so, he thought it was hardly cricket now was it, old boy?”

Beautiful language is used throughout The Secret Guests. The scenes are vivid, with lively characters and constant suspense.

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