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Book Review: Princess Elizabeth’s Spy

Keeping Up with the Windsors

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy: A Maggie Hope Mystery

by Susan Elia MacNeal

Bantam Books, 2012

When Susan Elia MacNeal’s new novel Princess Elizabeth’s Spy opens on a hot day in Lisbon, 1940, history buffs familiar with the Royal House of Windsor will thrill to guess what’s coming, and they aren’t left waiting: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII and his twice-divorced American mistress Wallis Simpson are entertaining their good friend “Schel” – Walther Schellenberg, deputy leader of the Third Reich’s Main Security Office and personal aide to Heinrich Himmler. And “Schel” has some interesting things to say. “We’ll need you,” he tells them, “both of you … to urge the British to accept German occupation. With you as King, and the Duchess as Queen, of course.”

It’s only the thinnest of embellishments on all that we can know of what really might have been said, and it gets the ball rolling in a typically businesslike fashion. Readers who caught MacNeal’s promising debut Mr. Churchill’s Secretary – which introduced the resilient, resourceful young transplanted American Maggie Hope and introduced her to the world of MI-5 and the code-crackers of Bletchley Park – will know already to expect this kind of clean, no-nonsense storytelling competence, and they get served up 300-something pages of that competence in this new book, when Maggie Hope is detached from code-breaking and sent to Windsor Castle, ostensibly as a tutor to fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth but really as her protector – a benevolent spy.

Even in these post-wedding post-Olympics Royals-crazed days, MacNeal – who, against considerable odds, appears to be American – knows she has something of an uphill battle to fight, exposition-wise. Her story, especially in its early pages, is chock-a-block with explanatory interruptions that will serve as helpful shorthand for many of her readers, as when we first encounter Princess Elizabeth’s redoubtable mother, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother):

When Scottish aristocrat Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had married Albert, Duke of York, the second son of King George V and Queen Mary, she’d never expected to become Queen, let alone a wartime one. But when Edward, the firstborn son, had abdicated the throne to wed Wallis Simpson, Albert had become King George VI – and Elizabeth had become his queen consort. When the Blitz began, she reached out to her people, touring the decimated East End, offering comfort and support to the grieving and homeless. For her steely determination, Adolf Hitler had called her “the most dangerous woman in all of Europe.”

Luckily, the knack for easy interpersonal scenes that MacNeal displayed so often in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary doesn’t desert her here. She catches just the right tone of the sisterly bickering between Princess Elizabeth and her smarty-pants younger sibling Princess Margaret, for instance (Elizabeth’s greeting: “Good evening, Miss Hope”; Margaret’s: “Well hello there!”), especially on the oft-repeated fondness the older sister has for her beloved horses and corgis:

“If it doesn’t have fur and fart, you don’t like it,” the younger girl quipped.

“That’s not true, I -”

“Oh yes – bonus points if it eats hay.”

Maggie Hope is no sooner installed at Windsor and introduce to the expected cast of interesting characters/potential villains (including a pompous master of the castle and the scarred young Lord Gregory Strathcliffe, who “got a bit singed early on in Norway” and refers to himself as Le Fantome) than a young girl out riding is decapitated by a wire strung between two trees – at the same time and along the same route that the young princesses were scheduled to go riding. Just like that, the game’s afoot at Windsor.

MacNeal avoids the mortal sin of ongoing murder mystery series – their increasingly unbelievable inconsequentiality – in the sure-fire way that works so well for Jacqueline Winspear in her winning Maisie Dobbs series (as close a kin to these books as authorly mitochondria will allow, one would think)(if the two could somehow team up, at least one reviewer would be pleased as punch): she makes it all very personal for her main character. The book’s darkly complicated series of climactic revelations couldn’t hit any closer to home for poor Maggie, but even before those lightning-quick pages, there are plenty of calmer moments that reveal both our steely main character and her equally-competent young charge as flesh-and-blood young women who’ve foolishly chosen war-time to give their hearts away, as Maisie confesses after Elizabeth has mentioned a certain dashing young naval officer:

“I thought you said you were in love with him?” [says Princess Elizabeth, quizzing Maggie about her own beau]

“I was – I am – I was just so angry he was joining the air force. It was stupid,” Maggie said, wiping her face and then blowing her nose. “It was stupid. I am stupid. And then his plane was shot down over Germany, And there’s been no news of him. So he could be dead. Maybe. But I refuse to give up hope that he’s still alive.”

Lilibet took in this piece of information and digested the enormity of it. “You’re not stupid,” she said, patting Maggie’s arm. “You just wanted him to be safe. Just like I want Philip to be safe.”

Maggie gave a wan smile. “Yes.”

“And they’ll both come back to us, you’ll see.”

“Is that a royal command, Your Highness?”

“It is.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Churchill makes several guest-appearances throughout the book, as do a host of well-researched lesser historical luminaries, and MacNeal juggles all of them expertly, evoking the atmosphere of war-torn England with a minimum of melodrama. The slight hum of over-workshopped by-the-numbers machinery that occasionally marred Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is markedly lessened in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, and it’s a good guess it’ll be almost entirely absent from the forthcoming third book in the series, His Majesty’s Hope. Like Maggie Hope herself, our author is a quick study.