The "what if" factor has become a rich ingredient for novelists who are interested in the Second World War. From Robert Harris's Fatherland to Owen Sheers' Resistance, serious novels have proposed serious scenarios to entertaining ends. To this group one can now add D J Taylor's The Windsor Faction, a highly successful literary thriller with one eye on a shocking chapter in the nation's genuine history and another on the potential for authorial invention. Taylor considers what might have happened if Mrs Simpson had died and King Edward VIII had never abdicated. His Majesty's pro-German sympathies were well known and in this alternative history we see how far his influence could have fortified the appeasers' cause.
Cynthia Kirkpatrick, an imagined heroine, finds herself mixed up with some real-life conspirators. She returns from Ceylon's claustrophobic expat community to London, just as Neville Chamberlain declares war, and slips into a secretarial role on a new arts magazine called Duration (rather improbably keeping the nation's chin up with short stories and lit-crit). Cynthia is a hub around which circles of intrigue spin. Her lover, Tyler Kent, is a traitorous US Embassy clerk (who in real life ended up imprisoned on the Isle of Wight) and her sassy colleague, Anthea, is an under-cover secret service agent. Meanwhile, across town, the journalist Beverley Nichols finds that his pacifying columns have drawn the attention of the palace. HRH is going to address the nation and he wants the right royal words for a King's speech that will stutter the war effort.
"When does an honourable and legitimate desire for peace turn into collaborating with your country's enemies," enquires an intelligence operative at one point. The novel's disparate cast clashes at the tipping point of that dilemma.
Taylor knows his subject and period to perfection, ably riffing on political intricacies and the manifestations and manipulations of class expectations. From the cadence of dialogue to the cut of the cloth the details are pitch perfect (his description of a man looking like a cod-fish is a nifty nod to one of Cecil Beaton's observations). Whether acted out in the corridors of power or the "pub snuggeries" this is a novel that in asking "what if" has captured, with precision, what once was.