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.

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Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs #1)

Well, I was farther along in finishing this review than I thought.

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs, #1)Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recommended for: lovers of lady detectives, historical fiction, and WW1

Maisie Dobbs is an independent young woman caught between two worlds, hoping to find her place in the new, modern world that emerges from the ashes of World War 1. The Great War smashed to bits the old order of the nineteenth century, leaving a young generation of Britons depleted and bereft. Years later, trying to leave behind the sorrows of the war, Maisie strikes out on her own to establish a private detective agency after her mentor retires.

Reflecting the vast social changes afoot, Maisie had given up her dreams of education in order to work as a maid in a grand London house. Ultimately, she was able to achieve those dreams when the lady she worked for discovers her intellectual gifts and found her a mentor, Maurice Blanche. Blanche not only educated her, leading to a place at Girton College, but provided her with professional training to be a private detective.

This is the first installment in a series of (so far) twelve mysteries featuring Maisie, a young woman of exceptional abilities. A few years ago, I read a later book in the series, initially unaware it was part of a series. I always wanted to start at the beginning because there were so many references to Maisie’s past.

I seem to be on a run of reading historical mysteries with women detectives. (Now why can’t make myself write a review of the simply fantastic book I read in between, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff? Hopefully it’s coming. Get on that, brain.)

In the first novel, it’s 1929 and Maisie has just started her own detective agency after the retirement of Maurice Blanche. One of her first cases is a simple matter of possible infidelity that evolves into a puzzle involving maimed WW1 vets and what we would now call PTSD. When the investigation requires some undercover work, Maisie recruits Billy Beale, a vet who works at her office building. Not only does the plot revolve around WW1 vets; the war experience saturates the novel. It’s as fresh in everyone’s mind as if it had happened yesterday; those whose lives weren’t destroyed are still struggling with the after effects.

We learn about Maisie’s earlier life through an extended flashback that takes up a good chunk of the story. She grew up working class in London. To make ends meet and provide Maisie security, her father finds her a position as a maid. When the war starts, she lies about her age in order to volunteer as a nurse on the front lines. Romance and tragedy ensue, the effects still lingering more than ten years later.

While the flashback certainly fleshes out Maisie’s character, it brings the action to a dead halt. You almost forget what was going on in the 1929 mystery plot as we learn about Maisie’s life from childhood to the war. As such, this is less of a traditional mystery than a character study framed by a mystery. This may or may not be to everyone’s taste and I’m not quite sure why the author and her editor chose this structure. Personally, I prefer a more meaty mystery where the plot predominates.

Not that I didn’t enjoy Maisie Dobbs. I did. Jacqueline Winspear is excellent at evoking the feeling of the period, the technology, the clothing, the social mores. She’s clearly done a great a deal of research to provide excellent world building. The action is enriched by an array of characters who form Maisie’s support group. The grief and sadness caused by the war are vividly rendered. While the mystery is somewhat thin, it provides other satisfactions in its themes which echo the concerns of the period and the coming cataclysm of World War 2.

As a character, Maisie is…well, a little too flawless. She’s too good. I don’t think she has a single negative trait, which makes her boring. She does suffer tragedy in this book, which is the only thing that adds complexity to her character. Perhaps she becomes more interesting in later books. I’m not jumping to read the next book in the series, but I may at a later point. I found the setting pretty interesting. Winspear is so good at depicting the period, you really feel like you’ve been plunked down in 1929. Maisie is plucky, for sure, and she’s so independent and competent, you can’t help cheering her on. Unique among fictional detectives, she focuses on her clients’ psychological well-being, in addition to solving the mystery. The next time I want a well-written foray in the 1920’s, I’ll definitely re-visit her world.

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Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante (Maggie Hope, #5)Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.)

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Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good escapist fare but ultimately disappointing

This book is like the Real Simple of novels. There’s ample description of beautiful women, real estate and food. Not much happens but every scene is like a photoshoot.

Two middle-aged married couples, Elizabeth and Andrew Marx and Zoe and Jane Kahn-Bennett, share intimately entwined lives in an idyllically suburban-like neighborhood of Brooklyn. Elizabeth is a real estate agent, Zoe and Jane own a fancy neighborhood restaurant and Andrew doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up. Each couple has a teenage kid: Zoe and Jane have a daughter, Ruby, and Elizabeth and Andrew have a son, Harry.

Three of the adults have known each other since college, when they were in a successful band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth member of the band, Lydia, went on to huge fame as a solo act before flaming out with a heroin overdose at 27, an icon in the making.

The action takes places over a single summer in which Zoe and Jane contemplate divorce (for no obvious reason); Ruby and Harry start a romance; and a shark-like Hollywood producer stalks Elizabeth and Andrew to get permission for a biopic of Lydia. Along the way, Andrew falls into the clutches of a self-styled guru and Ruby angsts about her ex-boyfriend and college.

The point of view switches between the six main characters, with Harry and Jane getting the least amount of coverage.

The main focus is relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how they change over time. The budding romance of Ruby and Harry echoes the complex history of their parents’ relationships. We see the adults’ marriages shift and mutate under pressure of events in the far-off past and in the present. A more peripheral theme is aging and how we reconcile our lives in middle-age with the idealistic hopes of our youth.

This book had a good set-up with interesting characters and situations but ultimately, it all seemed to lead nowhere. The potential conflicts fizzled into nothing. I kept anticipating that something more would happen and it never did. Or perhaps the problem was that the resolution of the conflicts was anti-climactic.

The only character that changes at all is Elizabeth, but her story arc wasn’t illustrated clearly enough to make that change emotionally resonant. I would’ve liked to have seen some of her post-book life.

With so many characters and points of view, this novel needed to be more tightly focused to have a strong impact on the reader. Instead it’s a lukewarm unstructured mishmash about which I didn’t care that much. I think it would’ve been better to choose one main character to focus on. There’s just too much going on with so many different relationships, the movie and EEVOLVEment subplots, the cat, Ruby’s ex, etc.

It also seems to suffer from the common affliction of unlikeable characters. Andrew, in particular, had almost no redeemable qualities and wasn’t that believable. Would a life-long New York resident be that naive? Perhaps, if his emotional needs were acute enough to blind him to the obvious, but the author doesn’t show that. Instead Andrew is just an oblivious, entitled jerk.

Also irritating as hell is Ruby, but she gets more of a pass because she’s clearly supposed to be an annoying teenager.

It irked me that there was no clear reason for Zoe and Jane to be contemplating divorce. I felt like there was something missing. The author never really shows us why. They grew apart a little? That seemed to be it. *shrug*

But here’s the thing: I actually enjoyed reading this and read it pretty quickly (admittedly while hoping for something to actually happen). So for all my criticisms, it’s clearly doing something right. I just have the feeling it could’ve been a lot better if the author had tightened it up and set up more coherent story structure and character arcs (any at all would’ve improved things). There’s a lot of good stuff here but the lack of pointed conflict makes for bland oatmeal instead of crunchy, salty bacon. er, or something. Actually, a couple of dramatic things do happen, but they don’t have any impact on the characters. Everyone just keeps plugging along in the same fashion. At most, somebody gets mad. That’s it. Nobody does anything differently because of a dramatic event.

All in all, kind of disappointing given the (inexplicably) good reviews.

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Garden District Gothic by Greg Herren

Garden District Gothic (Scotty Bradley, #7)Garden District Gothic by Greg Herren
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recommended
Light, quick-paced mystery with strong New Orleans atmosphere and gay MCs

You can book a weekend at a French Quarter B & B or save some money by picking up Greg Herren’s “Garden District Gothic” instead. This book is like stroll down Bourbon Street: nobody’s sober and everyone’s up to no good. You can practically feel the humidity rolling off the page in the newest installment of Herren’s New Orleans-set Scotty Bradley Mysteries. The magnolia-clad atmosphere is helped along by fading Southern belles languidly sipping absinthe on porches; luxurious Garden District mansions hiding a corpse or two and sweaty gay boys running charity races in red dresses.

The story plunges private eye Scotty Bradley deep into a decades-old mystery: who killed child beauty queen Delilah Metoyer? The riddle drops on Scotty’s doorstep when former teen bully Jesse Metoyer, Delilah’s half-brother, mysteriously re-emerges from obscurity and hires Scotty and his partners to look into it. There are shades of the Jon Benet Ramsey case from the 90’s and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as Scotty navigates a tangle of family secrets thicker than Spanish moss on a live oak tree.

This was a fun, light read. The mystery was satisfying and the setting and characters are unique. In the most successful aspect of the book, Herron does a fantastic job giving you the flavor of New Orleans, from the bohemian streets of the French Quarter to the stodgy upper-crust society of the Garden District. He doesn’t shy away from how the city has changed since Katrina either. Here’s Herren describing Bourbon Street:

Barkers outside outside strip joints try to lure spenders in, a guy in the hand grenade costume dances on his corner, and everywhere is the smell of Lucky Dogs and grease.

And the sedate Garden District:

If the Quarter is a painted whore, the Garden District is her much snootier and pretentious sister, narrowing her eyes disapprovingly at the immorality down the river. The people who live in those old mansions on their gorgeous lawns behind their fences will always smirk in the general direction of the Quarter, gently sipping tea from heirloom bone china cups held in white-gloved hands…although sometimes the “tea” is actually bourbon.

As far as the characters, Herren has created an intriguing one in Scotty Bradley, a life-long resident of New Orleans with psychic abilities who’s also one-third of a gay polyamorous relationship. This is the first of these mysteries I’ve read and Herren successfully introduces Scotty to new readers without getting bogged down in too much exposition. Approaching forty, Scotty’s a former go-go boy dealing with the unique challenges of aging as a gay man and the loss of his psychic abilities after Katrina. He has two somewhat improbable partners, a former FBI agent turned professional wrestler and a spy. Also in their household is a college-age nephew that the trio essentially adopted after his parents kicked him out for being gay. Scotty’s parents, unabashed hippies in a persistent haze of pot smoke who run a tobacco shop, provide additional color. Assorted other eccentric New Orleans types round out the minor characters and provide the engine for the mystery.

On the negative side, the aversion to a Nancy Grace-type television personality is overdone, there’s too much talk of the weather and the mystery resolves a bit precipitously. Also people are constantly smoking pot or drinking (but maybe that’s just New Orleans for you). Other than that, “Garden District Gothic” is entertaining and quick-paced and I would definitely read the other books in the series. If you’re looking for a light, entertaining mystery with gay main characters in a unique setting, I recommend it. (G-rated)

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in return for a review.

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