Susan Elia MacNeal: Princess Elizabeth’s Spy

This is a totally charming book, and MacNeal is deservingly nominated for both an Edgar and a Dilys this year (and probably an Anthony and an Agatha, though I am not always the best predictor).  Set during WWII, this is the second book in the Maggie Hope series.  Featuring a fledgling spy (Maggie) fresh from Churchill’s office and spy school, she was an abysmal failure at the physical aspects of her training, presenting a conundrum for her handlers.  She tells a friend it was terrible, like gym class every day, and if there aren’t a lot of readers nodding their heads in recognition over that comment, I’ve misjudged the mystery reading public.

Maggie has other skills, though, and she’s assigned to tutor the young Princess Elizabeth in “maths”, but in reality to keep an eye on her and preserve her from any kind of Nazi plot.  As is well known, the Royal Family did not evacuate London but stayed in the city, the Princesses at Windsor where they could be protected from bombs in Windsor’s extensive dungeons.  Maggie is at first enraged to be given such a feminine type job but is talked around by her superiors.

MacNeal has a very lively storytelling style, and she moves things right along, introducing a full complement of interesting characters, including some nasty Ladies in Waiting, a war vet with extensive facial burns who is serving the King, and the actual Nanny and governess to the Princesses, Alah and Crawfie.  Basing much of her story on reality, her fictional embellishments have a good foundation, so despite the flights of fancy toward the end of the novel, she has set up her story and setting and characters so well that it’s all pretty believable.

One of the other strengths of the novel is MacNeal’s ability to convey the real feeling of insecurity during wartime – Maggie isn’t sure who to trust, and she’s unable to commit herself to any personal relationships because she wants to focus on her charges and her job at all times.  She also adds a good note with some tricky business involving ciphers, cleverly introduced, and essential to the plot.  This is a wonderful and enjoyable new series.