Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal is the second book in a traditional historical mystery series (available October 16, 2012).
England, 1940. As the Battle of Britain rages in the skies, Maggie Hope trains to become an MI-5 agent. She’s come a long way from being Winston Churchill’s secretary, but is disappointed to find her first mission is in neither France nor Germany, but at Windsor Castle, where she is to tutor the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. But thrown into the upstairs-downstairs world of royals and servants, Maggie gets more than she bargained for. A possible suicide enmeshes her in an investigation and uncovers a conspiracy that stretches from the castle to Bletchley Park. The code-breaking machine known as Enigma, England’s top weapon against Germany, is in peril, and even at Windsor Castle, Maggie Hope may be behind enemy lines.
I missed the first novel in this new historical mystery series by Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, but am very pleased I found Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, which is set in England during World War II. Teen readers as well as adults might enjoy this novel because of the younger protagonists; even if readers don’t have a strong background in the history of the Second World War, the relevant facts are provided within the story.
After her first adventure, amateur detective Maggie Hope feels she would be effective as an undercover agent in occupied Europe. Born of English parents who died when she was young, Maggie was raised in America, only returning to England in 1939, bringing with her different social ideas about women in society. Her concrete skills include advanced mathematics useful for codes and ciphers, and fluency French and German, so she seems a likely candidate to be a spy. I was fascinated to learn how the women of MI-5 were trained, as it wasn’t something I’d read about before.
When Maggie had been Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secretary, she’d never thought of herself as potential spy material. And yet now she was living somewhere in Surrey, in a dilapidated Edwardian manor house the government had taken over for training purposes, known unofficially as Camp Spook. She slept on a hard thin cot in a bedroom with peeling wallpaper that she shared with two other girls. She and her fellow MI-5 trainees did daily exercises in a roped-off area of the garden. There, in their coveralls and plimsolls, they did push-ups, sit-ups, and rope climbing. Today they were split into two teams, competing to finish an obstacle course, which included wriggling through an oil drum, crawling through the mud under netting, crossing a man-made pond with only a few planks and a rope, navigating through a “minefield,” and climbing up an old factory ventilation shaft.
. . . She’d worked hard. She’d learned how to shoot Sten and Bren guns and hit targets. She’d learned to transmit Morse Code, jump out of a plane, and kill with various implements—a pen, a dinner knife, her bare hands. She’d been (with Mrs. Forester supervising, of course) tied to a chair, blindfolded, and interrogated for hours and hours by “Gestapo” officers with no rest, food, or water. In the mental aspects of the training, Maggie had excelled; in the endurance aspects, she’d failed. The most egregious was a twenty-five-mile cross-country trek all the candidates had to do in the cold and rain. Only a few miles into the course she’d tripped on a tree root, fallen, and knocked herself unconscious. After coming to, she’d limped almost a quarter of a mile before Burns and his men picked her up. The doctor at Camp Spook diagnosed her with a sprained ankle and hypothermia.
According to this novel, most of the British spies who parachuted into Germany or France were killed within three months. Maggie knows this but trains anyway; however, she has a difficult time with the physical fitness aspects of her potential duties, and her superiors decide she would be at too much risk. Crushed, she is sent to be assigned elsewhere.
In the meantime, networking turns out to be just as important during World War II as it is today! Maggie’s former employer, Winston Churchill, happens to be the Prime Minister. When he learns of a potential assassination directed at the heirs to the British throne, he approaches the king and suggests his former secretary, Maggie, as protection for them.
It’s a lot of fun to see fictional portrayals of the various historical personages, in particular the young Elizabeth, who at the time of the story is fourteen years old. Aside from that, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is a fast-moving story with an intriguing protagonist. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this series.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.