In 1940, mother, daughter turn unlikely spies; Miss Marple returns in anthology – Sun Sentinel
‘Mother Daughter Traitor Spy’ by Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam, 336 pages, $28
Susan Elia MacNeal established her historical credentials with her intriguing award-winning, 10-novel series about Maggie Hope, who worked as a typist for Winston Churchill during World War II before moving into espionage.
MacNeal brings that same meticulous research about WWII, solid character development and an invigorating plot to “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy,” her first stand-alone novel. As with her Maggie Hope series, MacNeal shows how ordinary people can rise to the moment, risking life to help stop hate. Patriotism is part of it, but so is the desire to do something that matters, the sacrifices required that can help save lives regardless of the cost to yourself.
The “mother” is Violet (“Vi”) Grace, the widow of a Naval officer who lives comfortably in Brooklyn with her intelligent daughter, Veronica Grace, who just graduated from college and is about to start her journalism career. But an indiscretion halts Veronica’s career before it can begin. At the urging and support of Vi’s devoted brother, Walter, the two women move to Santa Monica for a fresh start and to be near him.
Set in 1940, “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” looks at the time before the U.S. entered WWII. Both women of German heritage carefully follow the war in Europe, disgusted by Hitler’s actions. California proves to be anything but calm as they encounter homegrown Nazis. Veronica finds a job as a typist working, unwittingly, for a group with anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler sentiments. Having never worked, Vi can’t find even the most basic job. But her detailed sewing skills that emulate top designers are recognized by two society women who begin placing orders for clothes. They invite her to a luncheon that turns out to be an isolationist group.
Appalled by their new acquaintances’ views and violent plans, mother and daughter try to interest the FBI but instead are recruited by a shadow agency that is watching these groups. At first, Vi is reluctant while Veronica is more than willing, but soon mother and daughter are undercover spies, neither of whom would be suspected. “Overlooked and underestimated people make the best spies,” says Vi.
“Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” manages to be both historical and contemporary as these views haven’t been eradicated. MacNeal examines the pro-Hitler resentment about the U.S. getting involved in the war as well as the pro- and anti-Franklin Delano Roosevelt sentiments. Exploring the Nazi movement in America pre-WWII could easily become a novel steeped in issues, but MacNeal is careful to make “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” a solid mystery with a brisk, action-packed story.
At the heart of “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” is the close relationship between Vi and Veronica. They bicker, disagree on some things but are mostly in sync. Most of all, there is no doubt that they deeply love each other. The Graces are a mother, a daughter and spies but not traitors. Instead, their love of America propels them.
MacNeal elevates “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” with real people mentioned by name or using composites or pseudonyms for other characters. Several historical/author notes explain the history and events behind MacNeal’s fiction.
MacNeal plans to return next year to Maggie Hope, who no doubt is working on another secret mission for Churchill. Meanwhile, “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” is a first-class combination of espionage, historical and domestic drama.
‘Marple: Twelve New Mysteries’ by various authors. Morrow, 304 pages, $28.99
The latest homage to Agatha Christie — and there have been so many recently in movies, novels and biographies — is this wickedly fun anthology of 12 short stories that show a different side of Jane Marple, Christie’s perennial sleuth.
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The 12 authors are clearly having a good time taking Jane Marple from her quiet St. Mary Mead village to the streets of Manhattan, the Italian Riviera, a cruise ship bound for Hong Kong and more. The infectious joy the authors exhibit in their well-designed short stories translates to the readers.
Val McDermid, whose next novel “1989″ comes out in October, keeps the sleuth at home in “The Second Murder at the Vicarage” as she looks into the murder of a maid and her boyfriend. The story also is a nod to McDermid’s background. McDermid has mentioned in interviews that Christie’s “Murder at the Vicarage” was one of two books her grandparents had at their house and that she read this first Jane Marple novel numerous times.
Broadway beckons in Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” as the sleuth is eager to see New York, despite her nephew’s insistence that she is too old and frail to venture outside the hotel without him and his wife. Obviously, he doesn’t really know his vibrant, inquisitive and fearless aunt and her first-hand knowledge of how dangerous the world can be.
It’s the small towns, not metropolises, that breed “more terrible things” such as in Lucy Foley’s “Evil in Small Places” and Ruth Ware’s “Miss Marple’s Christmas.”
Each story in “Marple” delivers a vibrant look at the detective and honors Christie’s plotting skills.
Short biographies of the authors in “Marple” will, no doubt, inspire readers to seek out the writers’ other works. “Marple” is a solid anthology that pays tribute to Christie, whose work continues to endure.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at email@example.com.