Book Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver
By Angie BarryMay 12, 2021
A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver is the first book in the new Electra McDonnell series, set in England during World War II, and a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author’s signature wit.
Like they always say: desperate times call for desperate measures.
Electra McDonnell and her Uncle Mick know it’s not exactly the fair thing, cracking the safes of folks who have left London to escape the threat of bombing from the Luftwaffe. But with the Second World War raging, the McDonnells’ legitimate business as locksmiths is struggling, and the pair have been forced to rely on their less-legal hobby to make ends meet.
Their light-fingered larceny comes to a rather dramatic end, however, when Electra and Uncle Mick are snagged by shadowy men just after emptying a safe of sparkly jewelry. But to Electra’s surprise, they haven’t been apprehended by the police—and their captors have an intriguing proposition for them.
“What sort of proposition?” I asked.
“An exchange of favors,” he said. “If you choose to help me, this matter will be forgotten, and you and your uncle will go free.”
As much as I hated to admit it, he had my interest now. I waited for him to continue.
“There is, in this city, a gentleman in possession of several papers that we have need of. Those papers are being held in a safe.”
I realized then what he was telling me, and everything began to make sense. If I hadn’t been awake so long, my nerves all in a jangle from sitting alone in this cold room, I might have worked it out sooner.
He needed a safecracker.
Suddenly, the absurdity of it all hit me. I couldn’t help but laugh.
He took a slip of paper and a pen from his pocket and scrawled something on the paper before sliding it across the desk toward me. His handwriting was like his personality: bold yet precise.
“Ring this number tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll tell you where you might meet me to discuss the details.”
“This is rather cloak-and-dagger stuff, isn’t it?” I asked sarcastically.
“I’m afraid the enemy’s moved beyond cloaks and daggers to swastikas and tanks, Miss McDonnell. We’re just trying to keep up.”
Upright military man Major Ramsey clearly looks down on Electra and her family for their criminal background—and just as clearly dislikes that he’s forced to collaborate with them for the good of the war effort.
But, as they say, these are indeed desperate times.
As for Electra, she hardly enjoys being bossed around by a supercilious soldier, no matter how handsome he might be. She has plenty of reasons to resent authority and any group dedicated to law and order, but for all of her long-held anger and resentment, she still cares about her country. Her beloved cousins Colm and Toby are away doing their part—one working on airplanes for the RAF and the other currently MIA following Dunkirk—and she hardly wants to see Nazis marching down Piccadilly.
I sighed. “You think we should do it, then.”
“I don’t see that there’s much choice,” Uncle Mick said. “He’s got us dead to rights. It’s in with them or to prison we go.”
“Think of Colm and Toby,” he said gently. “They’ll need someone to come home to.”
He was right. Prison had taken enough from our family.
“Besides, Ellie.” Now he placed his hand over mine. “It’ll do us good to do our part. We’ll all have to if we want to win this war. We’ve our own outlook on the matter of law and order, but this is something different altogether.”
I nodded, knowing it was true. In all honesty, I had been feeling rather helpless where the war was concerned. There are only so many gardens a woman can plant and socks she can knit for soldiers before she begins to feel useless as she watches the men march off to battle. This was my turn to do something that could matter, that would make a significant difference.
I drew in a deep breath. “All right. Then we’ll do it.”
Electra knows her new job will be a dangerous one, maneuvering around Nazi sympathizers, spies, and brutal men who will kill for classified information. But as it turns out, her criminal background makes her a natural for espionage work as she dons a fake name and accompanies Major Ramsey from murder scenes to swanky parties, using all of her skills and pluck to secure secret plans and flush out traitors.
Ashley Weaver has already proven herself in the historical mystery genre with her Amory Ames novels, a slightly sharper pastiche of Nick and Nora Charles. With A Peculiar Combination, she launches a brand new series that shows she’s got quite the flair for espionage tales, too.
There are hundreds—thousands—of WWII mysteries out there, and some readers may be hitting the oversaturation point by now. But A Peculiar Combination is absolutely one worth picking up, thanks in large part to its solid heroine, Electra. Ellie is a compelling narrator with a tragic background that is sure to lend itself to exciting developments in future installments, and her sizzling dynamic with Major Ramsey adds a little heat to the chilly spy scenes.
Speaking of, Ramsey sure is a stone-cold babe, emphasis on the cold—at least for now. I’m sure Electra will thaw him in no time. When handled with finesse, the “opposites attract” trope can be a delicious one, and Weaver is already thoroughly spicing and seasoning this particular pairing. Very much looking forward to seeing how she develops them in the future.
I, for one, always love a well-done criminal-doing-good story, and this one’s a real corker. Watching Electra indulge her talent for pickpocketing to secure a clue and think fast in the face of capture is great fun. This is a lady who can keep her wits about her in a crisis and make the men around her shut up and take notice.
“But if you hadn’t been in a strop,” I went on, “I would have had time to tell you that I had a very good reason for talking to Matthew Winthrop.”
“Yes. I was watching him from across the room, and I saw one of the waiters pass him a note. He read it surreptitiously and put it in the pocket of his jacket.”
He let out an irritated breath. “And you’re just telling me this now.”
“You didn’t give me much of a chance before,” I retorted.
“And that’s why you decided to approach him,” he said, his voice having lost the conciliatory tone of a moment ago. “What? Did you suppose that if you talked with him for a while, took an interest in his poetry, that he would take the note out and show it to you?”
He really was an insufferable prig at times.
“No,” I replied, holding up the folded piece of paper that had been clutched in my left hand throughout all of this. “I thought I could take it from his pocket.”
Weaver lays a solid framework in this series debut, dropping plenty of enticing details that will no doubt pay off big in the next book(s). We’re quickly drawn into Electra’s world and colorful family and are left wanting more: about her parents, about Major Ramsey’s background, about what the next mission will bring, and how Ellie and Ramsey will, no doubt, pull closer to one another. This particular adventure is wrapped up nicely, but readers will certainly find themselves longing for the next chapter sooner rather than later.
It’s still the early days of the war in A Peculiar Combination, with the bombing of London and the full horrors of the conflict on the horizon, and Weaver is sure to pack in plenty of thrilling story around the upcoming significant events. Considering how evocatively she describes the changes the war has already brought to England, it will be very interesting to see how she covers even more dramatic societal shifts and emotional upheaval with this promising, very enjoyable series.