The Secret Guests

Written by Benjamin Black
Review by Kristen McDermott

Booker prize-winning Irish author John Banville has written this novel under the pen name he uses for his popular “Quirke” crime novels, to imagine one of the mysteries of World War II history—where were the royal princesses during the Blitz? Elizabeth and Margaret are currently enjoying a vogue thanks to the success of the TV series The Crown; fans of this show will enjoy seeing glimpses of the series’ take on their personalities in childish form. However, Their Highnesses are secondary characters in a thriller that focuses on an Anglo-Irish police detective, Strafford, tasked with guarding the obscure country manor in which the girls are hidden, and their watcher, Celia Nashe, a young Special Branch agent who poses on her first assignment as their governess, but keeps a Chekhovian gun hidden in her lingerie drawer.

As the princesses endure the boredom of their forced holiday, anxiety for their royal parents back home, and the pangs of infatuation with a handsome young groundskeeper, their guardians struggle to sort out friend from foe in a country hostile to English visitors. It’s a wise decision to create fictional participants since the reader knows that the girls survived, but both the main characters suffer from a troubling lack of common sense, their bad decisions endangering the princesses even more than the Blitz would have. If you can overlook that, there’s a lot of dry wit and suspense to enjoy, as the large cast of Irish supporting characters offers some biting satire about the hypocrisy of the English government looking to its longtime, long-suffering colony to protect its most precious members.