Day 1113: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Cover for On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret ServiceI had never read anything by Rhys Bowen, but recently I noticed reviews of her books popping up here and there. When Netgalley offered On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, I was intrigued. What I found was a frothy story of intrigue. This novel is the 11th in her “Her Royal Spyness” historical mystery series.

Bowen’s heroine is Georgie Rannock, the sister of a duke and 34th in line for the throne. She is on the impoverished side of the family, though. It is 1935, and Georgie is staying at the ancestral home of her fiancé, Darcy, at Kilkenny Castle in Ireland while they plan their wedding. Since Darcy is Catholic, Georgie may not marry him unless she renounces all claim to the throne, and to do so, she must have permission from the throne.

Darcy is employed by the government in some secret capacity, and he is called away. In his absence, Georgie decides to pop over to London after receiving a belated summons by Queen Mary. In her late mail, she also finds a plea from her friend, Belinda, who is in Italy. Belinda has gotten pregnant and is hiding out in Italy until she goes across the lake to Switzerland to have her baby. She wants Georgie to stay with her.

Summoned to tea at Buckingham Palace, Georgie goes to discuss her wedding difficulties with Queen Mary. When the Queen learns her immediate destination in Italy, she proposes getting Georgie invited to a swank house party there. The Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Mrs. Simpson has her divorce.

link to NetgalleyAt the house party, Georgie finds herself enmeshed in more than one drama. Her mother, the famous actress, is there, and she is being blackmailed. Some of the party are German generals, and something seems to be going on with them. And soon there is a murder.

I mildly enjoyed this little romp, although I knew who the murderer was even before the murder (if that makes sense). That is, I noticed something immediately and once there was a murder, knew who it was as a result. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the novel more if I had started with the beginning of the series. Georgie gets herself into some ridiculous situations, the murder is worked by a bone-headed Italian policeman, and the novel is just silly fun.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Day 931: Horses of the Night

Cover for Horses of the NightHorses of the Night seemed like a good choice for me, because it’s about Christopher Marlowe, and I do enjoy novels about literary figures. I just never developed much interest in this novel, however, and gave it up after 100 pages or so.

The novel concentrates on Marlowe’s spying career, involving him right away in the Babington Plot. Although Marlowe is alleged to have been a spy, nothing is known of his activities. At least as Aggeler depicts it, Marlowe seems to have little role in the case, sent in at the end of the plot with only a few lessons in how to be a Catholic. He is involved long enough, however, to become sympathetic with one of the alleged plotters, Margaret Copley.

link to NetgalleyAggeler appears to be previously an academic writer. For this novel, he has adopted a pseudo-Elizabethan writing style throughout, even for descriptive passages. This is an interesting approach, and it is not inherently irritating, but I found the writing overblown at times.

I also felt as if I was seeing a Marlowe who was not the actual person I would expect from my admittedly limited reading, a man more conventionally likable than Marlowe probably was.

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Day 906: Enchanted Islands

Cover for Enchanted IslandsEnchanted Islands is a novel based on the lives of Frances and Ainsley Conway, an American couple who lived on the Galapagos Islands in the late 1930’s and the 40’s. Although based on two memoirs written by Frances Conway, Amend has expanded the novel to cover most of Frances’s life and her friendship with Rosalie Mendel, all presumably fictional.

This book is a rather odd one. It begins with Frances and Rosalie in their old age and then returns in time to their childhood in Wisconsin. It spends some time there, following them until Frances’s late teens, when she discovers Rosalie with her own boyfriend and flees. Then it glosses over the next 20 years until Frances meets Rosalie again in California and later marries Ainsley. After that, Frances and Ainsley go on a spying mission for the Navy, something Frances is never able to tell her friends about.

The result creates a sort of divided effect. First, sections of the novel are either full of Rosalie or have no Rosalie, which made me wonder, why even bother with her? Why not just write about Galapagos? The other parts seem to belong to a different novel.

Then there is Galapagos, which Amend simplifies to the island Floreana when actually the Conways lived on three different islands. The existence there seems harsh, bleak, and lonely. There is little description of scenery or anything else to make us understand why, according to Amend, they came to love it. In fact, there is very little going on there, even including the spying.

I felt a distance from all these characters. Although we learn a lot about Frances, we don’t ever feel as if we understand her, and Ainsley is a sort of charming enigma. Most of the time, we don’t even like Rosalie.

link to NetgalleySo, a middling reaction to this novel. I was interested enough to finish it, but only mildly interested. I thought there was no sense of place in any of the settings. The characters didn’t seem like real people. The cover of the novel is lovely, but the islands seemed in no way enchanting. Did Amend bother to visit them, or is she just not good at description? Or are they not lovely?

Amend comments that she is a novelist first and only a mediocre historian. That remark irritated me, because I think that’s what’s wrong with with many historical novels. If authors aren’t willing to do the research to bring a time and place to life, maybe they should stick to contemporary fiction.

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Day 880: Exposure

Cover for ExposureIt’s the early 1960’s, the height of the Cold War, and Giles Holloway is a spy for the Russians, employed by the British Admiralty. He has been slipped a file to copy by his superior, Julian Clowde, and he takes it up to his secret attic room to photograph it.

But Giles has become an unreliable drunk. He falls down the stairs, breaking bones. He knows he must do something about returning the file by the next day, so he calls Simon Callington from the hospital and asks him to pick up the file and give it to Julian Clowde’s secretary.

Simon is not a spy. He’s an unambitious coworker who is more interested in his family than his job. Long ago, when Simon was at university, he was Giles’s lover, and Giles thinks he will do as he’s told. But when Simon sees the folder, he knows it should not be in Giles’s possession and realizes the truth. Instead of taking it back to work, he hides it in a briefcase in the closet. But someone has seen Simon in Giles’s apartment.

Simon’s wife Lily finds the briefcase with the file behind Simon’s shoes while she is cleaning. She knows Simon isn’t guilty of espionage and can guess what happened, as she is aware that Simon went out the night before in response to a call from Giles. Lily buries the briefcase in the garden.

Suddenly, policemen arrive to arrest Simon and search the house. They find nothing, but somehow a small camera for microfilm has been found in Simon’s office.

link to NetgalleyDunmore does an excellent job of invoking the Cold War era and of creating suspense in this novel. The authorities are misguided, as it becomes clear that the real spies are trying to frame the innocent Simon. Lily, a German Jewish refugee during World War II, is questioned as if she were a Nazi. The newspapers break the news, and Lily loses her job as a French teacher and is treated like a pariah. After a while, the novel moves its focus to the struggles of Lily and her children, who go to a small village to live.

Although it took me a while to warm up to Lily and Simon, I was gripped, wondering what was going to happen to them and their three children. I liked this novel much more than I did The Greatcoat, the only other book by Dunmore I have read.

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Day 855: Submergence

Cover for SubmergenceSubmergence is at once an intellectual novel and a gritty novel. It is about two characters who are submerged in different ways.

James More, an English spy, has been captured by jihadists in Somalia and is being held captive. Danny Flinders is a mathematician studying the patterns and diversity of life in the abyss. She is on a scientific expedition to study volcanic vents at the bottom of the Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.

The two are linked by a romantic encounter at the Atlantic Hotel on the coast of France. During the period of a few days, they fell in love.

In the filth of his captivity, James distracts himself by musing about some of the ideas he’s learned from Danny about the multiplicity of life, about what he knows of Islam, about his ancestor who was once swallowed by a whale, and other thoughts. The text is challenging—full of facts and floating with ideas. Both characters are in danger, but their ideas seem more important than the conditions they find themselves in.

Here was a situation where reading the Kindle version really took me by surprise. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was in the book and suddenly I was at the end.

This novel keeps you at a certain distance from its characters. Still, you want to know what happens and to consider the characters’ ideas.

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Day 850: The Other Side of Midnight

Cover for The Other Side of MidnightEllie Winter has been living a retired life since her mother’s death. Her mother was a psychic called The Fantastique who delivered messages from people’s loved ones, and she was particularly busy since the onset of World War I. But a few years ago, the New Society, a psychic research institute, called her a fake. Her mother died soon after, her career ruined. Ellie took up her work but refuses to contact the dead. Instead, she specializes in finding lost objects. The thing is, neither Ellie nor her mother are fakes.

To her surprise, Ellie is contacted by George Sutter, the brother of Gloria Sutter, who used to be her good friend until she was involved in the New Society fiasco. Gloria was also a psychic, and she and Ellie became friends because they understood one another. At least, that’s what Ellie thought.

Now George tells her that Gloria was murdered, but before she went to the meeting where she died, she left George a message that said, “Tell Ellie Winter to find me.” Ellie is surprised to learn that Gloria agreed to attend a séance at the home of her clients, something she would usually not agree to do. She is also surprised to find George involved, because Gloria split from him years ago. Ellie is under the impression that George works for the government, perhaps for MI5.

In her investigations, Ellie soon encounters James Hawley. She was attracted to him a few years ago when she met him on the flapper scene with Gloria, but he was involved in the New Society tests that disgraced her mother. One of the people Ellie wants to interview is a psychic named Ramona, whom he is supposed to observe that night. James tells Ellie that he always felt there was something wrong about the tests Ellie and her mother were subjected to, designed with input from Gloria.

Ramona is clearly a fake; Ellie can easily spot her tricks. But she has something interesting to say. The clients who had supposedly summoned Gloria to their house for a séance were not pleased to have Ramona and Fitzroy Todd arrive with her. Also, they were not set up for a séance. When Gloria went out into the garden, she was strangled. Soon, Ramona is dead, too, and Ellie has had a close encounter with the murderer.

Simone St. James dedicates this book to Mary Stewart. I don’t think many romantic suspense writers can top Stewart, but St. James seems a worthy successor. Although she is more interested in the supernatural than Stewart (only one of Stewart’s romantic suspense novels had a supernatural element, although there is that Merlin series), she creates an atmospheric setting, builds plenty of suspense, and keeps the romance secondary to the mystery. I have really enjoyed the two novels I’ve read by her so far.

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