Off the Shelf: The Secret Guests, By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt and Company ISBN 978125 0133014 2020 291 pp.
Review by Terry Kenneally
Benjamin Black is the pen name of the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. This column has previously reviewed a number of his books published under the pseudonym. It is a work of historical fiction set in Ireland during World War II, although in Ireland the war was referred to as “An Emergency”.
In 1940, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are whisked for their safety out of London as the city endures nightly German bombings. They are taken by Britain’s Secret Service to Clonmillis Hall, an old Big House estate in Tipperary (the title of the book recalls Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation).
Under the cover of an M15 agent posing as their governess, Celia Nashe, the girls are renamed Ellen and Mary to hide their identity. The arrangement is agreed between the Irish minister of external affairs, an ex-west Cork IRA man Dan Hegarty, and the suave English diplomat Richard Lascelles.
The quid pro quo in the agreement is for Ireland to receive coal, a resource Ireland was much in need of and which Britain has a great deal of – one of it’s few inexhaustible resources. Nashe’s counterpart is the Protestant detective Garda, Strafford, together they guard the princesses.
Many stock characters of the Irish Big House assemble in Clonmillis, including the heir to Clonmillis, the Duke of Edinore, his staff of gossipy maids and housekeepers and two working grounds men, Pike and Denton.
Eamon de Valera’s son, Vivion, pops up implausibly but hilariously toward the royal guests. Then there is the local IRA, a ragtag group of posturing amateurs in Belfast who after learning the identity of the “guests” seek to capture them for ransom.
In the first half, it’s all atmosphere and intrigue, while the second half of the book is action and adventure. Black has good information that the princesses were indeed in Ireland for a time during the Blitz. He draws the reader into a novel as intriguing as Irish-English relations during World War II.
The reader will find the denouement of the story a high stakes thriller. This columnist found the book a TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of The Kenneally Law Firm in Rocky River, Ohio. He represents insureds and insurance companies throughout the state of Ohio in insurance defense cases. Terrence received his Master’s Degree in Irish Studies from John Carroll University and teaches Irish History and Literature at Holy Name High School where he is also the President.