Solid twists keep plot churning in ‘Prisoner in the Castle’


“The Prisoner in the Castle” (Bantam), by Susan Elia MacNeal

One pleasure of a mystery series is connecting with a character that changes and grows with each novel. Maggie Hope, the heroine of Susan Elia MacNeal’s World War II novels, is a different woman in this eighth outing, “The Prisoner in the Castle,” than she was in the 2012 Edgar-nominated debut, “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.”

Starting as a typist for Winston Churchill, Maggie has become a full-fledged spy, working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the hush-hush organization created by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.” But at the end of 1942, the spy business turns against special agent Maggie when she is sent to a former Victorian hunting lodge on the tiny, remote Isle of Scarra, nicknamed the Forbidden Island, located hundreds of miles from the mainland of Scotland.

The place is supposed to be a secret British training center but is really a prison for top agents whose supervisors worry they could leak vital information or have weaknesses that could be exploited by the enemy. They can’t leave — or communicate with the outside world — and none of their friends or family knows where they are. But the 10 agents hardly feel like they are in jail as they roam the grounds freely and are served excellent meals by the three servants who live at the lodge.

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But then the agents — all of whom have been trained to kill — are being murdered, and it is obvious that one of them is putting to practice his — or her — background.

The plot’s parallels to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” are obvious — there are even several references to that 1939 novel. MacNeal honors that classic mystery, but does not make “The Prisoner in the Castle” a copycat novel. As in her other novels, MacNeal puts a fictional spin on real WWII events. “The Prisoner in the Castle” is based on a similar facility for at-risk SOE agents.

Maggie’s intelligence and loyalty to the war effort continues to evolve in MacNeal’s series. Maggie’s confinement at the island is complicated because her testimony is vital at a serial killer’s upcoming trial in London. Without her, the killer may go free.

Solid twists keep the plot of “The Prisoner in the Castle” churning until the surprise finale.

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