Susan Elia MacNeal: The King’s Justice

This title will be available February 25, 2020.

As I was writing my review, instead of adding “Susan Elia MacNeal” as the author, I almost typed “Maggie Hope,” so indelible and real has this character become.  Maggie, the red haired spitfire who began the first book as Churchill’s secretary, has now left the SOE (Secret Executive Organization) after being sequestered on a Scottish island (see The Prisoner in the Castle).  It’s now 1943 and she’s defusing bombs for the war effort.

To add fuel to the fire, the “Blackout Beast,” a Jack the Ripper style serial killer she encountered and caught in The Queen’s Accomplice (2016), is about to be sentenced.  He’s indeed sentenced to death for his crimes, but when another serial killer turns up in London, the Beast says he can help, but will only speak to Maggie. In a neat nod to Silence of the Lambs, Maggie does meet with the beast in the actual Tower of London, complete with resident ravens.

MacNeal often deftly intertwines many plot threads in her books, and this outing is no different.  There’s a nurse who may or may not be poisoning patients; there’s Maggie’s work, defusing bombs; there’s a portrayal of Italian-British or “Britalian” culture; and then there’s the latest killer, who supplies the police with suitcases full of clean bones.  As the suitcases begin to turn up more frequently, MacNeal’s other skill – the ability to write a ticking clock thriller – also emerges.  This book is very difficult to put down.

I think, though, that the central piece of this novel is Maggie’s cri de Coeur as she has begun to process all the very terrible things she’s seen and experienced since the start of the war.  At first, this is outward.  Maggie is smoking and drinking to excess, while doing incredibly dangerous work that all the same gives her the adrenaline rush that takes her mind off these terrible things.  She’s tearing around London on a motorcycle. She’s putting off her beau with an over eager attitude though she can’t stop thinking about the man she lost to another woman.

There weren’t words for “PTSD” back in 1943, but it happened all the same.  As I said, Maggie is real, so when she begins to go off the rails, your heart goes out to her.  She’s still the same brave, smart Maggie we’ve come to know and love, but the cracks in her armor are starting to show.  She’s also starting to consider that the “Blackout beast” in the tower may have something wrong with his mind and should not be executed.

“The King’s Justice” refers to the King’s ability to pardon a condemned prisoner, and the beast is demanding it in exchange for information.  Maggie struggles with this request as she is struggling with all other aspects of her life in this novel.  MacNeal’s gift is to bring the reader inside and to make you feel what her characters are feeling and experiencing.  As I finished the book, my heart in my throat, I felt for Maggie even while I eagerly read ahead to make sure she completes her mission, which is catching the latest killer.

This series is such a standout, and MacNeal can take this reader anywhere she wants to.  I can only say to all other readers and lovers of historical fiction out there, find a Maggie Hope novel, and find one now.