Called to Spycraft

The cover of Mother Daughter Traitor Spy shows a painting of a woman in a black hat and black dress, her face partially hidden.

Susan Elia MacNeal ’91

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy
Bantam Books
336 pages, $28.00

Violet and Veronica Grace do a lot of things together as mother and daughter: set up house, shop, cook, sew—spy. In Mother Daughter Traitor Spy, the first stand-alone novel from Susan Elia MacNeal ’91, author of the bestselling Maggie Hope series, readers get a cracking-good spy story told from a new perspective.

The tale begins in 1940, as isolationists push to keep the United States out of the war and FDR seeks reelection. Veronica Grace is a freshly minted college graduate, eager to begin a career in journalism in New York City. When the plum job she had secured falls through, she and her mother, Violet, look for a change of fortune in Los Angeles. But things aren’t so sunny on the West Coast.

Veronica struggles to find a job, running up against the dual forces of misogyny and her own lack of experience, and Violet struggles with the veterans department, as she tries to procure funds from her deceased husband’s Navy pension. A chance meeting with a stranger who connects with them because of their German heritage leads to a job for Veronica, albeit not quite what she’s looking for. When she shows up to help out with typing at what she thinks is an educational publisher, she discovers something quite different.

Alarmed by the antisemitic and pro-Nazi propaganda her new employers espouse, she and Violet attempt to report their concerns, but are met with indifference from the police and the FBI. In a last-ditch effort, Violet contacts a friend of her husband in Naval Intelligence, who connects her with a lawyer who has crafted a spy network to gather information on the growing pro-Nazi movement in the U.S. The women are uniquely positioned to earn the trust of this community—as Violet notes, women, especially middle-aged ones like herself, are often overlooked and underestimated, making them perfect spies. Compelled by the need to make a difference in a world at war, mother and daughter decide to go undercover to find concrete information to take to the authorities.

Thus begins a fast-paced story of spycraft, rich with details about what it’s like to embark on such a dangerous and isolating journey, from Violet gritting her teeth through embroidering swastikas to Veronica determinedly smiling her way through a relationship with a highly ranked member of the Nazi cell. MacNeal’s tension-filled narrative keeps the reader turning pages at a rapid pace, but she also weaves in thoughtful passages on the awful and mighty power of propaganda, the weight of history, and the responsibilities inherent in living in a democracy.

Inspired by real events, Mother Daughter Traitor Spy gives the reader a fascinating glimpse at the U.S. before it entered the war from the perspective of two women who simply want to do something to help. Although this is MacNeal’s first stand-alone novel, here’s hoping it won’t be the last.

Garrett is a writer and editor living in the Boston area.

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