Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II, mystery
Series: Electra McDonnell #1
Published by Minotaur Books on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
The first in the Electra McDonnell series from Edgar-nominated author Ashley Weaver, set in England during World War II, A Peculiar Combination is a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author's signature wit.
Electra McDonnell has always known that the way she and her family earn their living is slightly outside of the law. Breaking into the homes of the rich and picking the locks on their safes may not be condoned by British law enforcement, but World War II is in full swing, Ellie's cousins Colm and Toby are off fighting against Hitler, and Uncle Mick's more honorable business as a locksmith can't pay the bills any more.
So when Uncle Mick receives a tip about a safe full of jewels in the empty house of a wealthy family, he and Ellie can't resist. All goes as planned--until the pair are caught redhanded. Ellie expects them to be taken straight to prison, but instead they are delivered to a large townhouse, where government official Major Ramsey is waiting with an offer: either Ellie agrees to help him break into a safe and retrieve blueprints that will be critical to the British war effort, before they can be delivered to a German spy, or he turns her over to the police.
Ellie doesn't care for the Major's imperious manner, but she has no choice, and besides, she's eager to do her bit for king and country. She may be a thief, but she's no coward. When she and the Major break into the house in question, they find instead the purported German spy dead on the floor, the safe already open and empty. Soon, Ellie and Major Ramsey are forced to put aside their differences to unmask the double-agent, as they try to stop allied plans falling into German hands.
I just got the pun in the title. Electra McDonnell is a safecracker – among all sorts of other thievery. In this WW2 era mystery thriller, Ellie is recruited, just short of press-ganged, by the agency that will be better known as MI6, in order to do what she does. That is, the Secret Intelligence Service requires her to serve her country by cracking a safe containing classified documents that a traitor plans to turn over to the Nazis.
Yes, they could just barge in, blow the safe, and arrest everyone involved, but that’s not going to put misinformation into enemy hands. Cracking the safe, substituting false documents for the real ones, does have that potential. IF they can open the safe without the traitors being the wiser.
That’s where Electra McDonnell and her Uncle Mick, small-time thieves and safecrackers trying to supplement their honest income as locksmiths, come into the picture. They get set up by MI6 and get nabbed by the police, but instead of going to jail, they get an offer they really can’t refuse.
If they do the job, they’ll be placed on the government payroll. If they refuse, they’ll get placed in one of His Majesty’s Prisons instead. All Electra has to do is crack a safe while her Uncle is held as “collateral”.
Sneaking in goes off without a hitch, except for a couple of small problems that are definitely going to turn out to be big ones. When Electra arrives to open the safe – it’s standing wide open and clearly, obviously, unfortunately – quite, quite empty. While the man that MI6 believed was the traitor is lying on the floor – quite, quite dead.
Electra and her uncle could get out at this point. They’ve done the job they were coerced into doing, they’re not obligated for anything more. But knowing that the “Service” will be watching them makes their income supplementing housebreaking even dicier than normal. And they both want to do their bit for king and country – if not exactly in the usual fashion.
Not to mention, Electra just can’t let it go. Eventually the documents will be found, and Electra’s services as a safecracker might still be needed. The ability to keep cool in danger and under pressure that makes her a good housebreaker and safecracker is also excellent training for a covert operative.
If only the handsome Major with the stick up his ass who is in charge of the operation can manage to get his head unwedged from the same location long enough to see just how much of an asset Electra can be.
Escape Rating A-: World War II, the war years, the years immediately before it and its aftermath, provide plenty of fodder for absolutely oodles of stories. The war years are particularly fruitful for stories with female protagonists – the war created thousands of opportunities for women to have a great deal of independent agency in the absence of so many men at the front. There have also been several books that feature civilians getting roped into the secret services, and A Peculiar Combination reminded me more than a bit of several of them, including The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees and Death in Focus by Anne Perry. So if you liked one of those you’ll probably like this too, and vice versa.
But Ellie McDonnell is a bit different from the usual run of such heroines because she begins the story not exactly operating on the side of the angels. She’s a thief. In fact, her entire family, her uncle and her two cousins, are all housebreakers although only Ellie and her uncle are safecrackers. Breaking and entering is the family business and it’s a business that Ellie seems to have few, if any, moral qualms about.
They’re very careful housebreakers, after all. They only steal from people who can clearly afford it, and they only break in when they are certain no one is at home – or is going to be at home for some time. It’s also not in any way, shape or form remotely glamorous. It’s a living. Not exactly a respectable living, but a living. It’s a job, not an adventure. Ellie and her uncle may get a thrill out of it, but it isn’t about the thrill. It’s about a roof over their heads and food on the table and making sure there’s enough money coming into the household when legitimate jobs are scarce.
Not that both Ellie and Mick don’t get caught up in the thrill of helping Major Ramsey figure out who the traitor is, and the race against time to switch the documents before they’re handed off to the Nazis.
There’s an element of out of the frying pan into the fire as Ellie and Ramsay move one or two steps forward in their hunt for the enemy agent only to discover themselves back where they’ve started because they’ve swallowed a red herring instead of an actual clue. Or because the actual clue led, as it does at the opening, to an actual dead body. The reader finds themselves misdirected every bit as much as they are. The person who is acting against them seems to be at least one step ahead of them throughout the entire chase – and for excellent reasons which the story does an equally excellent job of concealing.
Returning to Major Ramsey, the man with both a stick and his head up his fundament, there is actually a second “peculiar combination” in this story. A romantic triangle – if that’s what it eventually turns out to be as the series progresses. Ramsay may be romantically interested in Ellie – there certainly are hints in that direction. Ellie is at least attracted to Ramsay, as he’s more than handsome enough, but she’s wary of his imperious manner and his upper-crust background. Meanwhile, there’s another man vying for Ellie’s heart, a childhood friend who is, as the saying goes, no better than he ought to be. But then, neither is Ellie. I hope that this conundrum is eventually resolved with as deft a hand as the spy case is wrapped up in this first book in the series, because as much as I’ve loved the adventure and the misdirection so far, I would be even happier with this story without the potentially messy romantic entanglements. YMMV
But I really did love the spy games, and I like Ellie as an unconventional protagonist quite a lot, so I’m looking forward to the second book in this series, The Key to Deceit, coming out in May, 2022.