Recommended for: lovers of historical mysteries, World War 2, lady detectives, Marvel’s Agent Carter
I really enjoyed this World War Two homefront mystery. It deftly combines a plethora of historical subjects and real historical figures with a clever plot and sympathetic fictional characters. As soon as I finished it, I looked up the other books in the series, wishing I could dive right in and skip over the other books in my queue.
At first, I was a nervous about the treatment of real life historical figures, but MacNeal won me over and I was soon able to lose myself in the story. The historical setting is well-done, and there’s a perfect balance between actual historical incidents and people and fictional ones.
At the height of World War Two, Maggie Hope is an American-born British spy working undercover as Winston Churchill’s secretary. In December 1941, right after Pearl Harbor, Churchill travels to Washington D.C. to meet with President Roosevelt, bringing along Maggie as part of his entourage. Without knowing that Maggie is a spy, Eleanor Roosevelt asks for her help investigating the disappearance of her secretary. Maggie also becomes embroiled in the campaign to save the life of a black Virginia sharecropper on death row. Eventually the two plot lines are braided together in a dramatic climax.
Maggie is an intriguing character: a trained spy who’s earnest and idealistic but who also has a dry sense of humor. I found myself wanting to know more about her. Raised in the United States by a professor aunt, her parents are a Nazi-sympathizing German and a British man. (The scenes involving her parents are the least effective. I assume they’re more meaningful to readers of the entire series. Without more background, their storyline was too melodramatic.) There’s an entertaining camaraderie between Maggie and her two male friends who also work for Churchill, and a frustrated romance or two adds some spice.
Throughout the novel, MacNeal skillfully weaves in social justice issues such as discrimination against African-Americans and women, and the legacy of British imperialism and American slavery.
”Yes, one of the District buildings [the Capitol] that survived the Brits in 1812.” Maggie pointed to the top of the high dome. “Freedom is one of my favorite statues.”
“A bit ironic as a topper for a building built by slaves, wouldn’t you say, Mags?”
She sighed. “You have a point.”
She also drops in a couple of gay and lesbian characters without making a big deal of it, acknowledging how difficult it was to be gay in this time period.
Overall, she very effectively recreates the atmosphere of World War Two Washington D.C., a time of great excitement and fear as the world waited to see whether the United States could turn the tide of the war. Music, food, decor, clothing, newspapers and magazines, restaurants and bars: the impressive amount of historical detail makes you feel like you’re really there:
On a bridge near the Lincoln Memorial, machine guns had been mounted, and soldiers patrolled. Outside the Jefferson Memorial, helmeted guards carried rifles with bayonets. Temporary wooden housing had sprung up on the Mall for the sudden influx of war workers.
As a mystery, my biggest complaint is that for some unknown reason, the villain is revealed early on. I personally prefer not to find out who the killer is until the end. It detracts from the suspense. Strangely, it’s also revealed almost in passing that the killer is a serial killer and it’s oddly downplayed. Make the villain less of a monster, unless you’re going to explore that character in more depth than this book does.
This isn’t one of those mysteries with a complex puzzle-like plot. Instead it entertains with compelling descriptions of World War Two Washington D.C. and sympathetic characters with a sense of humor and just enough emotional arc to satisfy. It’s also fun to see famous historical figures up close and personal.
I look forward to spending more time with Maggie Hope!
(I received a free copy of this book through Net Galley in exchange for an objective review.)