In this historical novel, three couples join forces in the murky underworld of espionage to help defeat Hitler’s march to European domination.
Emil and Magda Franz, an accomplished Jewish couple, are compelled to leave their native Germany when Nazi anti-Semitism overtakes it. They move to balmy Southern California. But they do not live quietly, marshaling their considerable political influence—Emil takes secret meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt—to form a “group with extraordinary abilities” that they can “trust implicitly to look for the strings, the gears moving the theater of the macabre that is this war.” To that end, Emil assembles six talented young adults: two married couples (Laura and Greg Macklin and Rory and Sybil Ellis-Rhys) and two individuals destined to become one (Nessa Eiles and Drax Shaw). One of Nessa’s high school teachers, Steven Etchberry, works closely with Emil, and as a result she comes to his attention—he’s inexplicably impressed by her high school valedictory speech, a long-winded sermon about the evils of selfish ambition. Nessa is at first recruited as an information liaison, a way for Emil’s organization to deliver communications to Roosevelt and Winston Churchill without involving their untrustworthy intelligence services. Later, she graduates to more dangerous work, using her expertise in physics (peculiar for a budding screenwriter) to spy on the German government’s progress in making an atomic bomb. McGinnis (The House on Kalalua, 2016, etc.) follows the group beyond World War II and documents the United States’ embattled relations with the Soviet Union and the pernicious rise of McCarthyism. The plot is brimming with action, intrigue, and captivating characters (Emil and Magda appeared in the author’s 2015 debut novel, Five Cats of Hamburg). In addition, the romance between Nessa and Drax—and the strain put on it by the war—is sensitively depicted. But this unabashedly moralizing work is drawn in heavy-handed brushstrokes—the author seems more eager to proselytize against “rabid capitalist profiteers” than tell a story. McGinnis is inclined to caricature—Nessa’s boss, a “tight-assed Republican,” even has a cartoonish name: Buckley Brentwood. Finally, the dialogue is ham-fistedly overwrought and follows Nessa’s achingly earnest desire to “replace the god Mammon with a social conscience.”
An absorbing political tale undermined by sententious preaching and verbose prose.