ARC Review: The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

Los Angeles, 1943. As the Allies beat back the Nazis in the Mediterranean and the United States military slowly closes in on Tokyo, Walt Disney cranks out wartime propaganda and the Cocoanut Grove is alive with jazz and swing each night. But behind this sunny façade lies a darker reality. Somewhere in the lush foothills of Hollywood, a woman floats, lifeless, in the pool of one of California’s trendiest hotels. When American-born secret agent and British spy Maggie Hope learns that this woman was engaged to her old flame, John Sterling, and that he suspects her death was no accident, intuition tells her he’s right. Leaving London under siege—not to mention flying thousands of miles—is a lot to ask. But John was once the love of Maggie’s life . . . and she won’t say no.

Maggie is shocked to find Los Angeles as divided as Europe itself—the Zoot Suit Riots loom large and the Ku Klux Klan casts a long shadow. As she marvels at the hatred in her home country, she can’t help but wonder what it will be like to see her lost love once again. But there is little time to dwell on memories once she starts digging into the case. As she traces a web of deception from the infamous Garden of Allah to the iconic Carthay Theater, she discovers things aren’t always the way things appear in the movies—and the political situation in America is more complicated, and dangerous, than the newsreels would have them all believe. 

CW: one of the POV is a KKK member, so expect lots of racism, antisemitism, usage of slurs etc.

I actually started reading this a while ago but abandoned it after a few pages coz I wasn’t in the mood. But it’s also one of the few longest series I have been following for a while, so I didn’t wanna totally give up and decided to read it for the readathon in August.

This was not an easy book to read, not because of the writing at all, but because of the time period it is set in. 1940s America, and specifically Los Angeles maybe outwardly glamorous because of Hollywood, but the other side of it is full of Nazis and fascists and racists fighting for their so called white America. So, the author uses some of the events that took place during those trying times to create an engaging murder mystery with large scale implications. I was actually surprised to know how many of the little subplots or people involved in the book were inspired by reality. While the book itself was fast paced and very interesting to read, I can’t say I liked reading the POV of a Klan member. But the author does manage to cover up the distaste we might feel at that POV by peppering the book with a lot of popular names of the times – Hollywood superstars and directors, musicians, singers, ballet artists, authors and playwrights – if you know your American movie/artistic history, I think you’ll find all of the references very enjoyable but unfortunately I’m a noob when it comes to this area, and I skipped the names coz they didn’t mean anything to me.

Maggie remains one of the bravest historical women I’ve read in the past few years and it’s always nice to return to read about her new adventure. I liked that we get to see more sides of her this time – the born American whose relationship with her birth country is troubled because she can’t reconcile the glamour and patriotism with the racism; the woman unsure about meeting the most love of her life; and the British service member who needs to make choices about her future while contemplating the various betrayals by her own superiors.

However, I’m not sure what I feel about John yet. He seems like a nice guy and does like her a lot, but I can’t make up my mind if he is good enough for Maggie. Sarah as always was a bright spot and I loved her friendship with Henri. The less I talk about the other POVs, the better. I definitely did miss David and the rest of the London gang

To conclude, it was nice to be back among familiar characters. The murder mystery itself was pretty interesting but straightforward, and I thought the strength of the book was the vivid setting the author was able to create. The books ends on quite a surprising note and it looks like the proceedings will again move more into the Nazi territory, so I’m quite looking forward to that. 

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

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