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Monday, June 21, 2021

The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
Published by Bantam ISBN 9780593156926
Hardcover, $27, 368 pages

There are a small number of series that I impatiently wait for the next book to publish, and Susan Elia MacNeal's WWII spy Maggie Hope series is one of the few. Maggie has taken us from London to Berlin to the coast of Scotland to Paris, and in the latest book, The Hollywood Spy, Maggie is in 1943 Los Angeles to help her former boyfriend discover who killed his fianceé.

Maggie's old beau RAF pilot John Sterling is in Hollywood training pilots for war. He also has a project in the works at Walt Disney Studio, working on an animated film about pilots. Disney has opened up his studio lot for the war effort, in addition to creating films intended to promote the US involvement in the war. 

Maggie's friend and former spy Sarah has a dance role in one of the films, so Maggie is staying with her at the Chateau Marmont hotel. While investigating the drowning of John's fianceé, which the police have ruled an accident, Maggie discovers an ugly underbelly of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles was a hotbed of Nazism until Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. While the Nazis have seemingly gone underground, the Ku Klux Klan is an emerging power. Their anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, and racism attracts people drawn to the White Power movement, including people high up in the Los Angeles police department.

The more Maggie digs, the more she discovers a possible connection between John's fianceé's death and the Nazi sympathizers. But when evidence in the case disappears, Maggie doesn't know who to trust.

MacNeal immerses the reader in 1943 Los Angeles. We visit such iconic places as The Cocoanut Grove, Disney Studios, and Schwab's Pharmacy. Her descriptions of the architectural mishmash of different styles - Moroccan next to Spanish next to Greek next to Roman- highlight that Los Angeles is "a mirage in the desert- suspended between fantasy and reality", a point made more than once. (One house that Maggie visits actually contains fake marble columns from a film set.)

Since this is Los Angeles, many famous people made cameo appearances- Walt Disney, Linus Pauling, Howard Hughes, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, Igor Stravinsky- that add to the atmosphere of the story. It's also good to have our old friends here- Sarah and John.

I learned so much about a time in the history of Los Angeles with which I was unfamiliar, and a glance at the extensive Sources section at the end are a tribute to the substantial amount of research MacNeal did in crafting this fascinating chapter in Maggie Hope's story.

MacNeal opens the book with two powerful quotes- one from Hitler in 1933 about undermining the morale of the American people, and one from Albert Camus' The Plague about a plague lying dormant and rising again. Both of these (unfortunately) resonate with the political dynamics of today. I don't know if it should be a comfort to know that as a country we have faced these problems before or a disappointment that we still have not reckoned with anti-Semitism and racism.

The Hollywood Spy is the tenth book in the brilliant Maggie Hope series and it's good to see that Maggie has seemingly come through the personal troubles she has faced in the last two books. Fans of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series should start reading the Maggie Hope books, they're a great companion- both women are strong, intelligent, brave and great inspirations for young women. I highly recommend The Hollywood Spy.

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