Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, suspense, thriller, World War II
Series: Elena Standish #2
Published by Ballantine Books on September 8, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
On her first mission for MI6, the daring young photographer at the heart of this thrilling new mystery series by bestselling author Anne Perry travels to Mussolini's Italy to rescue the lover who betrayed her.
Britain's secret intelligence service, MI6, has lost contact with its informant in northern Italy, just as important information about the future plans of Austria and Nazi Germany is coming to light. And young Elena Standish, to her surprise, is the only person who can recognize MI6's man--because he is her former lover. Aiden Strother betrayed her six years before, throwing shame on her entire family. Now, with so much to prove, Elena heads to Trieste to track down Aiden and find out what happened to his handler, who has mysteriously cut off contact with Britain.
As Elena gets word of a secret group working to put Austria in the hands of Germany, her older sister, Margot, is in Berlin to watch a childhood friend get married--to a member of the Gestapo. Margot and Elena's grandfather, the former head of MI6, is none too happy about the sisters' travels at this tumultuous time, especially when a violent event at home reminds him that even Britain is growing dangerous. As his own investigation collides with his granddaughter's, what's at stake on the continent becomes increasingly frightening--and personal.
Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Europe, New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry crafts a novel full of suspense, political intrigue, and the struggle between love and loyalty to country.
The terrific first book in the Elena Standish series, Death in Focus, was an espionage thriller wrapped around a traditional mystery, set in a changing Europe in the years between the Great War and World War II.
The years while Hitler was on his rise to power, the years when those with eyes to see were aware that a second war was on the horizon – no matter how badly they wanted that not to be true. And no matter how many people were willing to compromise anything and everything to keep the fragile peace at ANY cost.
But this second book in the series, set just a few months after the events of Death in Focus, is unquestionably all about the spy games. Not that there aren’t plenty of mysterious things happening, but those mysteries are wrapped around Elena’s mission – to rescue a spy that her government planted six years ago in Austria so that they could have someone on the “inside” if things went the direction that was feared.
Aiden Strother was in deep cover, but his “handler” is dead and his mission is compromised. Someone needs to go to Trieste, warn him, get him out if possible and his information out no matter what. And Elena is the best operative MI6 has for the job – no matter how new she is to the job.
She knows Strother on sight. And he’ll trust her, for the contacts he knows she has in the Foreign Service and MI6, if not for the relationship they once had. Once upon a time, they were lovers. Until Strother stole secrets from the Service and went over to the Austrians, burning Elena’s career in the process.
Now Elena learns he was tasked with becoming a double agent, setup by MI6 to pretend to betray the British. Elena’s career was merely collateral damage to MI6. Even if her grandfather was once the head of the organization. Or perhaps especially because, as Lucas Standish’ successor will do anything to erase the man’s shadow.
But this is a spy game from beginning to end, and nothing is quite as it seems. Not Aiden Strother, not Jerome Bradley, current head of MI6, not the situation in Trieste, and especially not Elena Standish. Whatever she may once have been, whatever she may once have felt, Elena’s experiences in Berlin at the hands of the Gestapo in Death in Focus have changed her focus.
Elena will do what she must, even if she must commit murder, all alone in the dark. After all, all is fair in love and war. And this is war, even if it is conducted in the shadows.
Escape Rating A-: My feelings about this book are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, I found it even more compelling than the first book. On the other, I feel like I have even less of a grasp of Elena’s character than I did in that first book. So I felt driven to keep turning the pages, but it wasn’t Elena’s story that I was turning those pages for. Definitely a paradox as this is supposed to be Elena’s journey and Elena’s series – or it should be as it is named for her.
(I’ve read at least some of three of the author’s previous historical mystery series, and all of those, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, Daniel Pitt, and William Monk, are all unquestionably about the people they’re named for.)
So even though Elena was the one in danger, it was her grandfather Lucas and her sister Margot who seemed to have more compelling narratives. Or perhaps it’s that their stories felt like they had a broader focus on conditions in general. Elena’s story, although it did have implications for the war that no one wants to see on the horizon, was, of necessity, more tightly focused on her need to find Strother and convince him to leave or at least get his information out, while the Fatherland Front for the Nazis in Austria did its best and worst to kill them.
And while Elena’s feelings about Strother complicate her perspective on what’s really going on, both in general and between them in particular. Even though Elena has grown up a bit from the first book, she still reads as a bit naive and much too wrapped inside her own head to be actually good at the job. Although she’s learning, she’s still too emotionally conflicted to draw me in the way that Maisie Dobbs or Bess Crawford do in their respective series. (And they are all readalikes for each other, so if you like one give the others a try!)
Meanwhile, her sister Margot returns to Berlin to attend a friend’s wedding to a young German officer. Because it’s not Margot herself who is directly involved, she has a much clearer picture of the true state of affairs as she watches her friend marry someone who is such a fanatic that Hitler is practically a guest at the wedding, while both the bride and her parents desperately hope that this marriage will protect her and them in the storm to come. So many people on all sides of the wedding seem much more clear-eyed on what the future will bring than Elena playing spy games in Trieste.
But the part of the story that really grabbed my attention was Lucas Standish’ part of the story. He’s supposed to be retired from MI6, but he still has his hand, possibly both hands, into the service that he led for so long. He sees the war coming, and also sees that there are too many in Britain who are so weary of the cost of war that they will rationalize any atrocity in Germany in order to keep their heads in the sand.
And that there are an entirely too well placed few who believe that Germany has the right idea, and that Hitler’s Germany would be a natural ally for Britain. That the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Germany are not merely necessary but are actually a good start to the eradication of people that too many Britons, as well as Germans, believe are less than human.
While Elena is rescuing a spy, and Margot is supporting a friend at the outset of a terrible journey, Lucas is on the hunt for one of those Britons who wants to ally directly with Hitler’s Germany and not only supports his tyranny but possibly wants to import it. And is using MI6, a service that Lucas still loves, in order to subvert the expressed policy of the government.
Lucas is hunting for a traitor who has his eyes on Lucas’ country and his family. His part of the story, figuring out who the traitor is and convincing enough people in high places to root him out is the part of the story that took me for the biggest thrill ride.
So, I’m compelled to continue following the “Standish Saga” as the spy games continue leading straight into the war we all know is coming – even if the character the series is named for is not the character I’m following the series for.