ARC Review: The King’s Justice by Susan Elia MacNeal

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London. December, 1942. As the Russian army repels German forces from Stalingrad, Maggie Hope, secret agent and spy, takes a break from the Special Operations Executive division to defuse bombs in London. But Maggie herself is like an explosion waiting to happen. Shaken by a recent case, she finds herself living more dangerously–taking more risks than usual, smoking again, drinking gin and riding a motorcycle–and the last thing she wants is to get entangled in another crime. But when she’s called upon to look into a stolen Stradivarius, one of the finest violins ever made, Maggie finds the case too alluring to resist.
Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer on the loose in London and Maggie’s skills are in demand. Little does she know that in the process of investigating this dangerous predator, she will come face to face with a new sort of evil…and discover a link between the precious violin and the murders no one could ever have expected.

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I really enjoyed this series when I read the books in the past couple of years but the last installment really disappointed me. But when I saw the release date for this 9th book of the series, there was no way I could abandon it because I still had fond memories of the main character. And I’m happy that I decided to stick with it and also got the opportunity to review it in advance.

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While the previous book had a bit of a boring narrative, I loved that the author decided to go back to telling a murder mystery story because I feel it’s her strength. This time we have one serial killer waiting for his execution and a new one who has emerged and is trying to one up the other – I’ve definitely seen this kinda story before in police procedurals on TV, so while it felt like a predictable story, I liked the execution of it and also being set in a historical time during a war. The writing itself wasn’t too fast paced but it was steady, with a few tense moments and lot of introspection but I can’t say it felt like an intense thriller. This was a much more subdued kind of mystery despite the high body count. I can’t say I guessed the ending perfectly before it was revealed, but I had an inkling and it was a lot of fun to be proven right.

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Maggie has been a character I’ve admired since the beginning and my main point of contention in the previous book was that she had no growth. I have absolutely no complaints in that regard here because this book gives us a much more vulnerable version of her. She has been through hell, both while working as a spy and her time in Scotland and watching the trial of the serial killer from book 6 only brings back all the trauma to the forefront. For the most part she tries to be nonchalant, maintaining the stiff upper lip attitude, drowning herself in smoking, drinking and all other adrenaline inducing activities just so that she can keep the nightmares away. It was so painful to see her this way but the author gives her space to work through all her feelings as the book goes on and I thought it was very realistically done. But whatever may have happened, she is still the same smart, intuitive, kind and strong woman and it was lovely to see her stand by her convictions and values.

Detective Durgin is a capable investigator but he is also a divorced workaholic set in his ways, and it was sad to see them try to build a relationship when they really couldn’t give much to each other. Maggie’s friends Chuck and Sarah are also dealing with the effects of war and loss in their own ways and while they all couldn’t always open up to each other, it was lovely to see them still try to support as much as they could. David is still a delight, bringing some humor to the proceedings while also being very frank and insightful in providing advice to Maggie. There were also other POVs we get to follow which help us readers in trying to unravel the mystery and I thought they were quite interesting too.

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As the execution of a serial killer who murdered and mutilated many young women looms around the corner in the story, Maggie as well as many other characters try to contemplate the morality of capital punishment – how it feels more like revenge rather than justice, will it really give any sense of peace to the survivors or victim’s families, how is the state any different from these killers if it gets into the business of killing for punishment. There is also a bit of discussion about nature vs nurture, how the cycle of abuse might be a pertinent factor in one becoming a deranged killer and the importance of considering it as a mental illness and studying it. As all of this is happening during WWII and the Jewish massacres by Hitler are just coming to light, it gives more weight to these discussions and I thought it was all quite thought provoking and profound without being too preachy.

Another theme which I resonated with the most was that of Maggie realizing the futility of bottling up her emotions, how we women are unfairly expected to never show anger or rage which results in affecting our own mental health. Her deciding that she will express her rage and channel it in better ways was a great moment in the book and I thought it was all wonderfully written.

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At the end, all I can say is that I was glad to be back in this world following the admirable Maggie Hope and while I can’t really call this a “fun” read, it was nevertheless quite engaging. There is lot of character development and an interesting mystery, and if you’ve ever read the previous books in this series, I think you’ll really like this one. If you are unfamiliar with this series but enjoy a WWII  era setting, a tenacious and smart heroine and a different fascinating mystery in every book, you should totally give this series a chance. The author hints at the proceedings moving to America again in the next installment and I’m totally here for it.

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PS: Thank you to Bantam and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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