The cost of war—both in human lives and the moral questions raised by the actions necessary to win—is at the heart of The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal ’91, her latest entry into the Maggie Hope mystery series. As one spy says to another, “Wars aren’t won by respectable methods,” and her characters struggle with what they must do in the course of their operations to further the Allied cause.
For those new to the series, Maggie Hope is a Wellesley-educated mathematician and codebreaker working with the British government, and she, too, must now grapple with the reality of what agents do in order to survive and accomplish their assignments. Undercover in Nazi-occupied Paris, Maggie is attempting to complete two different missions: find out what happened to an agent gone missing with critical intelligence on Normandy, and find the half-sister she barely knows. Using a neutral Irish identity, Maggie enters Paris as a young bride-to-be, hoping to fill out her trousseau with what remains of the glittering Parisian fashion houses.
What unfolds next is a gripping tale of spycraft populated with characters ranging from historical figures like Coco Chanel to fictional ones modeled after real-life counterparts. Indeed, Paris itself is like a character in the novel, as it strains to remain true to its spirit while being gripped tightly by the Nazi occupation. MacNeal’s thoroughly researched novel shifts from Churchill to Hitler to Hope seamlessly, offering various perspectives on what was going on behind the battlefields in the arena of misinformation and sabotage as planning for the Allied invasion progressed.
It is a common adage among spies to “trust no one,” and Maggie must learn to heed this warning as it becomes clear that there is a double agent lurking somewhere in the network of British spies and their French counterparts. As she attends the ballet and fashion shows to maintain her cover, she must also walk a tightrope of deception among the ever-present Nazi intelligence forces if she is to return to England with the information the Allies so desperately need and the sister she so desperately wants to find.
Although this is the seventh installment in the series, readers won’t find themselves adrift if they use this book as their entry point. MacNeal includes enough background material to keep previous storylines clear without slowing down the narrative with too much detail—in fact, readers may find their interest piqued enough to read the previous entries in the series. Whether this is a first encounter with Maggie Hope or the seventh, readers will be delighted with her intelligence and courage, and will be waiting anxiously to learn what happens next to this intrepid heroine.
Garrett, an aficionado of mystery novels, is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.