Black’s lucid prose is the perfect foil for tangled politics, old hatreds, unsolved crimes, the threat to Irish neutrality, and the possibility of new alliances that seethe underneath ... This elegant novel will satisfy all readers who appreciate a good story, well told.
The Secret Guests is not so much a thriller as what Graham Greene called 'an entertainment,' and the tone is very reminiscent of the Greene of England Made Me or Our Man in Havana. Although the tone is light, the novel is a mordant observation of the palimpsest of arrogance and resentment that is the legacy of Britain’s dealings with its neighbor, one that’s still being played out today as Brexit threatens to destabilize both Ireland’s economy and the island’s fragile peace. As for the princesses, they are written with a republican zest, made all the keener by the knowledge that royalty, for all its anachronistic irrelevance, sells.
There is much that is familiarly Banvillian about The Secret Guests. Over his career, Banville has returned time and again to the eternally-fading grandeur of the Anglo-Irish Big House with its token cast of comic eccentrics and haunted secret-keepers ... There is also something timely about this particular mixture of fact and fiction in The Secret Guests, given how the changing political relationships between Ireland and Britain and the current decade of commemorations are compelling a re-examination of Irish and British history ... And yet, for all that, the author has great fun here. The Secret Guests is a brilliantly entertaining, conceptually inventive, and frequently funny novel that combines Banville’s stylistic virtuosity with the excitement of a well-plotted thriller. If the first half of the novel is all atmosphere and intrigue, the second half of the book is action and adventure. The chapters are short and punchy, the writing typically deft, and the drama rapidly accelerates towards its inevitable denouement. If The Secret Guests is a sign of things to come from BW Black, then there is much to anticipate.
... subtle if occasionally slow-moving ... Among the book’s many satisfying elements is the portrayal of the prejudice that Strafford and Nashe face in their careers, with Strafford being 'the only Protestant at detective level' and an outlier among his countrymen, and Nashe dealing with male colleagues who don’t want 'bloody women' among their ranks ... memorably shows the many forms that hatred can take.
The people Yaffa describes exist in strange moral tidal zones, both subject to influences and capable, to some extent, of resisting them ... Yaffa implicitly defends those who compromise their morals for a cause, but has little sympathy for those who compromise their morals for personal benefit ... Ultimately, Between Two Fires is a good book about Russia, but a great book about ethics, choice, and coercion — and to read it is to be reminded that one of democracy's most important freedoms is the freedom to be good.
Although the novel produces eventual gunfire and a dead body or two, the plot, such as it is, is more a series of episodes through which Black demonstrates his deftness in evoking milieu, ambience, and the points of view of several mordantly drawn characters ... If this story cannot be found in history, it is an entertaining conceit — and feeds our own republic’s unappeasable appetite for the Royals.
An intriguing premise can’t save this plodding what-if historical thriller ... A romantic subplot involving Celia fails to engage, and the anticlimactic ending disappoints. Fans of this gifted writer will hope for better next time.