Set against a background of the abdication crises of 1936, with the plot deftly woven between real events, this erudite and entertaining historical thriller has a neat twist at the end.
There are no goodies and baddies in this novel – all characters have their flaws, and none more so than the putative hero, Owen Montignac. The only son of a disinherited gentleman killed on the Somme, he was raised by his uncle, the beneficiary of the disinheriting. Since this uncle’s only surviving child is a daughter, and the family has a tradition of inheritance in the male line only, he had every expectation of inheriting the family estate and considerable fortune on his uncle’s demise. Imagine then his disbelief (and indeed rage) when instead, his uncle leaves everything to Owen’s cousin Stella. This is particularly unfortunate as Owen has rather large gambling debts to repay, and is now unable to do so. The relationship between Owen and Stella is interesting; they were clearly at one time exceptionally close, but no longer are. The mystery of their relationship, and what exactly happened is hidden by the convenient device of ‘we won’t talk about it’, although given what is eventually revealed, it is entirely understandable.
Owen is given the opportunity to repay his debts through framing the son of a prominent judge for murder. This judge is well known for his rigorous application of the law, no matter what the consequences, and we see this in the early part of the novel when he sentences a remote scion of the royal family to death for his part in the murder of a policeman. Judge Bentley (and yes, I did get that reference!) also happens to be on a committee which is advising the Prime Minister of the advisability or otherwise of the King’s liaison with Mrs Simpson. Judge Bentley is minded that it is the king’s business whom he marries and nobody else’s. Thus forces opposed to Mrs Simpson’s presumption conceive an opportunity for persuading Judge Bentley to the opposing view.
How it all turns out is very clever. While reading I could never quite make up my mind about Owen – his characterisation is excellent. Fortunately for my peace of mind, I got my answer; Boyne isn’t a writer who likes to leave hideous loose ends lying around. Highly recommended.
Other novels by John Boyne reviewed here: