Celeste Bradley is turning into one of the more reliable authors of European Historicals and if this book isn’t an outstanding read, it’s a darn good one. And, frankly, considering what’s out there these days, there’s a lot to be said for that, isn’t there?
The third book in her Liars Club series, The Spy tells the story of James Cunnington, brother to Agatha (The Pretender), and presently engaged in trying to find the missing daughter of a retired Liar’s Club code breaker believed to have gone bad. By finding Phillipa Atwater, James believes he’ll be one step closer to discovering the whereabouts of her father and uncovering the nature and extent of his betrayal.
Alone and friendless in England and determined to find out what’s happened to her father, Phillipa has little to go on beyond a scribbled note in her parent’s journal: “Keep a close watch on James Cunnington.” Convinced she’s being stalked and clueless as to any allegations regarding her father’s possible traitorous actions, Phillipa disguises herself as “Philip” and takes a job as tutor to James’ young ward Robbie.
Though “Philip” arrives for the interview without references, James decides to hire the emaciated “young man” due to mixed parts of pity, kindness, and respect for Philip’s sure hand with young Robbie. Believing the deception to be her only viable option, Philippa joins the household and – between frequent rounds with the altogether challenging Robbie – begins her reluctant sleuthing. But with James unaware of Philipa’s true identity (and sex, of course) and Phillipa uncertain if James is friend or foe, the misconceptions and lies between the two stand firmly in the path of the truth – and the growing attraction Philippa feels for her employer.
What worked especially well for me here are the characters of James and Phillipa: Both are fully three-dimensional and thoroughly likable people who, for the most part, behave in believable ways throughout the story. With his ego severely battered by his former lover’s momentous betrayal, James’ reluctance to trust a woman is more than understandable, as is affection – if not his love – for young Robbie. In desperate straits when the story begins, Philippa is a resourceful and dynamic heroine who “fixes” the relationship between Robbie and James without ever wandering into Dr. Phil-land. Phillippa is a strong woman in terrible circumstances and, if her actions are occasionally questionable, her motives certainly are not.
Unfortunately, there were several major plot points that I found less effective than the well-drawn central characters. Superspy James can’t identify Philippa as a girl even though his ward and manservant manage to do so virtually on first sight? And, even more frustrating, James has the major case of the hots for a mysterious woman in the park (Philippa, of course) and for an equally mysterious dancer (Philippa again, of course) and still doesn’t manage to see the bleedin’ obvious. (Wow, those are some powers of observation!) As so carefully drawn by Ms. Bradley, James is a smart guy and, to be honest, it stretches credibility pretty dramatically to believe that he would ever be quite this dense. Equally problematic is his eventual anger with Philippa when the truth finally does come out – a reaction that is as annoying as it is inevitable.
But, what the hey, the story moves quickly, the characters are fun, and the ultimate HEA is one to savor. Frankly, it’s always a relief when an author manages to sustain the quality in an ongoing series, and, despite my quibbles with the underlying mistaken identity premise, Ms. Bradley is certainly meeting the challenge here. A must for readers of the Liars Club series and a good bet for those who haven’t yet started, The Spy is a solidly enjoyable European Historical I unhesitatingly recommend.