Thursday, 16 May 2024

"One of my favorite parts of writing a novel is the research. I love going down rabbit holes on lesser-known facets of history, the quirky, head-scratching, jaw-dropping stuff."

The 11th, and final, book of the Maggie Hope series, The Last Hope, might seem completely over the top if it were not grounded in actual history. Throughout the series, my goal has been to shed light on aspects of the war which are little known (at least to us now) and what “regular people” did as well as the historic bold names. My goal has also been to take “white hat” and “black hat” stories about the Greatest Generation and show them in more shades of gray.

I’ve explored the IRA bombings in London, which were simultaneous with the Blitz, and the plot to kill King George and kidnap Princess Elizabeth to put the Duke of Westminster and Mrs. Simpson on the throne. Britain not only had to deal with enemies from abroad, but enemies within, whether they were double agents or serial killers.

One of my favorite parts of writing a novel is the research. I love going down rabbit holes on lesser-known facets of history, the quirky, head-scratching, jaw-dropping stuff. Some of the historical facts I explore in The Last Hope, are so unbelievable and extraordinary that—even on my 11th book—I had to cross-reference the details with multiple sources. When that happens, I know I need to write about them. Then I research as much as possible, think of how they could affect Maggie in real time, and start imagining.

For The Last Hope I took three distinct threads of World War II history. The first was Coco Chanel’s actions as a Nazi secret agent, including her two trips to Madrid to broker a separate peace for Germany with Britain on behalf of Walter Schellenberg. The second was the story of Mo Berg, a former Red Sox catcher, who worked for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) during World War II. His assignment was to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, the German whom the Allies believed had developed the first nuclear bomb, or was close to doing so. And then there’s Aline Griffith, the Countess of Romanones. Like Berg, she was American and working for the OSS in Madrid during the war, being romanced by the famous bullfighter Juanito Belmonte (whom she eventually married!) while carrying out spy missions.

Kim Philby during WWII
     Kim Philby during WWII

Of course, this is Maggie’s story, and I needed a way to connect all these disparate events. Enter Kim Philby—yes, that Kim Philby, one of the infamous Cambridge Spies, who eventually defected to the Soviet Union. During WWII, Philby oversaw Spain and Portugal for SOE, and ran U.K. missions there. He connected Maggie, in SOE, to everything happening in Madrid. And thus I was able to draw in the bigger themes of the start of the Cold War during the last years of WWII, and how (since it seemed inevitable the Allies would win) the world’s powers would reorganize themselves after.

Woven into the history, though, is Maggie’s own story. In The Last Hope, she navigates dangerous missions (of course) but also love, loss, acceptance and, ultimately, hope. My wish, as with all of Maggie’s books, is that real historic details make Maggie’s story come alive, and the result is enlightening, entertaining, and maybe even a little inspiring.

Susan Elia MacNealSusan Elia MacNeal is the author of The New York Times, Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and USA Today-bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series, starting with the Edgar Award-nominated and Barry Award-winning Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. The Maggie Hope novels have been nominated for the Edgar, the Macavity, the ITW Thriller, the Barry, the Dilys, the Sue Federer Historical Fiction, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Fiction awards. The Last Hope is slated to be the final book in the Maggie Hope series.

Susan Elia MacNeal on "The Last Hope"
Susan Elia MacNeal
Sunday, 05 May 2024

I Will Ruin You
by Linwood Barclay
William Morrow, May 2024, $30

No good goes unpunished, right? Linwood Barclay explores the price of altruism in his latest thriller, I Will Ruin You. English teacher Richard Boyle manages to stop a disgruntled ex-student named Mark LeDrew from blowing up the high school where he teaches.

In the aftermath, Richard is a hero and he gets plenty of attention—but not all of it is positive. Suddenly, he’s being blackmailed by a former student. At first, he doesn’t tell anyone—not even Bonnie, his beloved wife—because he’s afraid of his reputation getting besmirched. But trying to solve it himself, Richard only digs himself in deeper.

Richard’s rationale for responding to the extortionist’s demands makes sense in today’s day and age when everything is judged in the court of public opinion, and you’re guilty until proven innocent—and even being innocent sometimes doesn’t matter. A sad sign of the times, something Barclay delves into with vigor. But is Richard truly such a good guy? 

Barclay has written scores of excellent novels. Most notably, a few of my favorites No Time for Goodbye, Elevator Pitch, Never Look Away, and Take Your Breath Away. I Will Ruin You takes its rightful place in that list as the author takes readers on an emotional roller coaster of deft plot twists and what-the-hell?! moments. I Will Ruin You will indeed ruin you—or at least your sleep schedule until you've reached the end. Barclay proves once again that he's at the top of his game.

Review: "I Will Ruin You" by Linwood Barclay
Kurt Anthony Krug
Monday, 29 April 2024

The Djinn's Apple
by Djamila Morani, translated by Sawad Hussain
Neem Tree Press, May 2024

In 803 A.D., Baghdad, it is at the height of the Abbasid Empire, a golden age of literature and medical knowledge. Yet, unrest stirs within the highest ranks of the government. The Baramikas, once among the most influential families, have fallen out of favor with Al-Rashid, the ruler of Baghdad. When a group of men attacks her family’s home, 12-year-old Nardeen Baramika is the sole survivor. At first, she assumes the massacre is related to family's loss of status, but she soon discovers the attackers were looking for a mysterious manuscript that belonged to her father, a renowned doctor.

Nardeen is saved from being sold into slavery by doctor Muallim Ishaq, a colleague of her father’s who take her under his wing. She becomes Ishaq’s student, learning more about medicine as she trains in the hospital than even most male physicians. As the years pass, Nardeen continues to struggle with grief of losing her family—and prepares for the day when she will take revenge on her family’s killers.

But the truth is more complicated than Nardeen can imagine, and connecting the dots between her family’s murder, the missing manuscript, and Baghdad's political unrest will take every bit of courage and perseverance she has. During her ordeal, Nardeen will discover how thin the line between justice and vengeance really is.

The Djinn’s Apple, a YA novel originally published in Arabic in 2017, has been translated into English by Sawad Hussain, making this magical and enthralling book available to a English readers for the first time. Author Djamila Morani skillfully blends mystery and historical fiction to tell a gripping tale about a girl seeking justice for her family, while also bringing readers into a time and place that many of us may not know much about.

Readers will also surely like Nardeen, a feminist before her time, who perseveres to learn medicine despite opposition from several men who believe that females are incapable of being physicians. There is even a touch of romance (Nardeen and a fellow trainee doctor start falling for each other), which will have readers rooting for the couple as the novel progresses. Ultimately, The Djinn’s Apple is an artful rendering of an ancient time and way of life, with a perfect dose of intrigue to please the modern mystery lover.

Review: "The Djinn's Apple" by Djamila Morani
Sarah Prindle