She did it again.
I wrote a week or so ago about getting the details right. The right details, the little things, bring the reader into your make-believe world, help it feel like a real place. And by the same token, getting them wrong can be jarring, and getting them really wrong can make it almost impossible to enjoy the book, or even finish it.
Well, I'm done with Susan Elia MacNeal and her World War II era mysteries. I love the era, and as I said, the first one wasn't bad, though somewhat predictable. But it contained a howling error towards the end that really shook my appreciation for the story. As a reader, I put her on a short leash, so to speak.
So in her second book in the series, Princess Elizabeth's Spy, she made another huge error, the kind that makes you question everything. And this time, she did it right up front, where it colored my perception of the whole book.
She had a character shot down near Berlin in 1940, after the Battle of Britain. That wasn't a problem. England did launch a few bombing raids on Germany, as if to say, "See? We can do it too."
The problem was that she had the character flying his Spitfire over Germany. Really? How did he pull that off? The Spitfire was obviously the most famous plane in the RAF during the war, arguably among the ten best planes ever built. But it was a short-range fighter, and with the English kicked off the continent after Dunkirk, there were no bases to stage a fighter sortie over Berlin, or any reason to, either.
That's why the bombing raids were so dangerous. They had to fly clear across France and into Germany with no fighter coverage.
If she had written that his Lancaster bomber had been shot down, I'd have believed her instantly. But her insistence on making it a Spitfire, doubtless because it's the most well-remembered plane in the RAF, makes it clear that she just doesn't care about the details. Yes, the Spitfire was an RAF plane. Maybe she thought it was more important that it sound right than that it actually be right. But if she thought that, she was wrong.
And for the record, while the Spitfire was the best plane the British produced, it wasn't flying in great numbers during the Battle of Britain. Historians (who MacNeal would have been wise to consult) credit the pilots in the less advanced but more numerous Hawker Hurricane with turning the tide of the war.
She then compounds the error by repeating it several times during the course of the increasingly improbable story. Then the narrator (omniscient third person) compares the relationship between MI-5 and MI-6 to that between the FBI and CIA, the latter of which didn't exist until 1947. This you could almost forgive, since the narrator isn't part of the story. But throwing in another anachronism just makes it that much harder to buy the story.
And then they get to the submarine. Maggie, her friend David and 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth are kidnapped and taken aboard a U-Boat bound for France. Every detail feels contrived, made up. The author seems to be using a picture in her head of a sub from a Tom Clancy novel, with long passages and a brig and fluorescent lights and a curious lack of crewmen crowded in. They escape by setting a fire in their cell which sets off an automatic sprinkler which forces the sub to surface. They then manage to avoid every member of the crew to get out of the sub, and they're rescued by the Royal Navy.
Good heavens! Didn't the author ever watch Das Boot? I don't know, because I haven't looked it up, but I'd be willing to bet the German U-Boats did not have rooms set aside as brigs, fluorescent lights or automatic sprinklers as described. I don't believe you could walk ten feet through a U-Boat without meeting a lot of sailors.
I don't believe the story, at all.
The climax violates a rule I just read in The Kill Zone mystery writers' blog. "The overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense."
Princess Elizabeth's Spy fails that test completely.
And it's not as if she didn't do any research. I now know more about Windsor Castle and the village of Windsor than I ever wanted or needed to know, and that was before I stopped reading and started skimming. It feels like every single bit of information she picked up from the brochures and web sites ended up in the book. I'll repeat what I've said before. You don't need a mass of details. You need the right details.
Anyway, enough kvetching. If I don't like MacNeal's books, there's a really simple solution – Stop reading them.