The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent by Susan Elia MacNeal

The Prime Minister's Secret Agent (Maggie Hope Mystery #4)

Recommended with reservations

I haven’t read the previous books in this series and this book doesn’t work all that well as a stand-alone. I was kind of frustrated by it.

Maggie Hope, an American-British spy in World War 2, has retreated to a remote Scottish manor house to train other British spies. She struggles with depression caused by the tumultuous events of the previous book (referred to incessantly). When dead sheep are washed up on the shore and one of her best friends mysteriously falls ill, Maggie is drawn into a mystery that exposes the dark side of the British war effort.

It seems more like a coda to the previous book; too much time is spent resolving previous matters. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the historical setting and some of the characters. The author is good at conveying the sense of living in a time of desperation, when no one knew how things were going to turn out. I liked the set-up with Maggie teaching at the spy school in remote Scotland. She’s a compelling character and clearly a lot of research went into this.

But there are too many plot strands and they don’t cohere. Worst of all, the mystery gets short shrift in the midst of the lead up to Pearl Harbor, Maggie’s crazy German spy mother, Maggie’s depression, adopting a cat, Churchill fomenting, etc., etc. It was frustrating how little of the book is devoted to the actual mystery, not to mention the obviousness of the cause of death, if not who did it.

I think the author needs to pare down the number of plot elements and dig deeper into the mystery. This book would’ve been improved if it had just been about Maggie teaching at the school, dealing with her depression and coming out of it by solving the mystery. Instead we get a mish mash of a million other plots in a bunch of different locations unconnected to Maggie, just to tie it into Pearl Harbor and the US coming into the war, with the stupid Clara Hess character tacked on for…well, I have no idea why (see below).

Also she keeps introducing characters and then dropping them. There are repeatedly scenes where a new character is the main actor but we never see them again after that scene (for example, the scene where the double agent tries to give info to Hoover; the actor who’s training at the spy school). You think something more is going to happen with them and it doesn’t.

There was something about Maggie’s depression that wasn’t convincing. I don’t know why. It seemed kind of superficial, or maybe it just didn’t seem to fit the character, who seems very no-nonsense in the next book. Maybe the author needed to dig a little more deeply into Maggie’s feelings. Just using the shorthand “the Black Dog” didn’t seem adequate.

As in the book that comes after this one, the story revolving around Maggie’s mother, Clara Hess, is the worst part. Clara belongs in another book. She’s ridiculous and over-the-top. If you watched the recent FX show, Feud: Bette and Joan, I think Clara would fit in well in an early 60’s horror melodrama. As Jack Warner from that show might say, hagsploitation anyone? If I read any more of these, I think I’m going to visualize her as Bette Davis played by Susan Sarandon. I hate her character. She’s ridiculous. Get rid of her. Instead, the author implausibly has her escape every situation. Also there’s no connection to Maggie at all. Why is her mother even in these books?

Despite my reservations, you might enjoy this book if you like history, mysteries set in WW2 or Britain, stories about women in WW2, strong heroines.

I’m not going to jump to read another book in this series, although I wouldn’t mind reading the first one to see how this all gets started. Eventually. No time soon.