Now that the war in Ukraine has moved into its second year, we can likely look forward to a flood of thrillers on that subject. Meanwhile, here are three books that deal with different aspects of war: the clandestine side, embodied by two World War II operatives who happen to be women, and the arms business, which takes a human toll as it manufactures the machinery of death.
It’s a striking coincidence that Cara Black and Jacqueline Winspear, creators of the long-running Aimée Leduc and Maisie Dobbs series, have conceived new heroines with the same unusual job description: trained killers during W.W. II.
Night Flight to Paris is the second appearance for Black’s Oregon-born sniper, Kate Rees, who was ordered to assassinate Hitler for the British secret service in the previous book. Kate is sucked back into the spy game after a two-year break to take on an impossible mission in occupied Paris. All she has to do is deliver medicine, assassinate a Nazi, and extract an agent in trouble. Quite the trifecta for a rusty operative code-named “Cowgirl” who is more Annie Oakley than she is Mata Hari.
Her handler knows the risks, but he’s betting on her survival skills. If those fail, there’s always the cyanide pill.
In stripped-down prose, Black brings the invaded city sharply to life as Kate tries to navigate ground that is always shifting beneath her, racing from one meet to the next and improvising her way out of sticky situations. The action careens around with the crazy momentum of a pinball game.
Kate’s motivation is simple and powerful: straight-up revenge for the deaths of her husband and child in a German bombing. Staying alive—and ridding the world of at least one more Nazi—is her aim in this sustained adrenaline rush of a thriller.
The madness of war has subsided for Winspear’s Elinor White, who lives in the English countryside in a “grace and favor” house donated to her for service to the nation, determined to enjoy a quiet, anonymous life and not dwell on wartime memories.
In Cara Black’s Night Flight to Paris, an American sniper is sucked back into the spy game to take on an impossible mission in Nazi-occupied Paris.
As a young girl growing up in Belgium during World War I, she and her sister were recruited by a mysterious woman to work for the Resistance. Because who would expect two schoolgirls to derail a train? Twelve-year-old Elinor turns out to be a prodigy in the dark arts of spycraft and a crack shot to boot.
After the horrors of the first war, Elinor settles in London, where she will be drawn into dangerous intelligence work again during the second war. An operation gone disastrously wrong in a Belgian village inflicts such extreme trauma on her that she’s sent back to England for good.
Three years later, her solitude is disrupted when a pleasant young couple and their child move into a nearby cottage. Elinor warms to them, but a ruckus at the cottage reveals that the husband is the black-sheep son of the Mackies, a notorious London crime family who are trying to force him back into the fold.
The safety of her neighbors becomes Elinor’s top priority, and she pours all of her formidable talents into the effort.
Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books have explored the intersection of criminality and war—the chaos of battle and bombs providing the perfect cover for a variety of criminal enterprises—and she expands on the subject with characteristic intelligence and psychological acuity in The White Lady. Elinor is an obsessive planner, but there’s a limit to what can be anticipated, and she learns that a life spent on high alert is no life at all.
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books have explored the intersection of criminality and war, and she expands on the subject in The White Lady.
That kind of caution might have helped Cate Castle when she steps off a plane in Cairo and is almost kidnapped in Christopher Bollen’s The Lost Americans. It might also have helped her avoid some of the problems she runs into after that ominous beginning. But the New Yorker is driven by an intense need to know the truth about the death of Eric, her brother, officially declared a suicide from a fall from the third-floor balcony of his Cairo hotel.
Cate doesn’t buy the verdict of the local police for a second. Eric, who worked in Egypt as a technician for an American arms company called Polestar, wasn’t the type and had been cryptically signaling her that something was awry. When an autopsy performed in the U.S. confirms her suspicions about homicide, she tears off on a poorly thought-out fact-finding trip to Cairo.
We’re in Graham Greene territory here, and as clever and confident as Cate may have felt back home in New York, she’s in way over her head playing Sherlock Holmes in the capital of a military dictatorship where the secret police grab people off the street for the slightest infraction, never to be seen again. And since Polestar monitors and muzzles its employees to keep them in line, getting any of his co-workers to talk is a challenge.
We’re in Graham Greene territory in Christopher Bollen’s The Lost Americans, which takes place in Cairo.
Cate’s only real assistance comes from Omar, the gay nephew of a wealthy Egyptian friend. The pair are ridiculously overmatched in their quixotic quest for the truth, but Cate’s reckless naïveté and Omar’s local knowledge help them get close.
The Lost Americans is a sensitively written, keenly observed, hauntingly sad thriller that will make you want to weep with frustration: for the brief, broken promise of the Arab Spring, for the betrayals that take place within families, and for the ugly business of war, which is always booming.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City