True to Your Service
Butler Mae Valentine and former Major Hamish Kitt, the spy who loves her, return in this third instalment in Sandra Antonelli’s In Service series – which started life as a trilogy but is, according to the author’s notes, going to be expanded to incorporate a fourth book sometime in 2021. True to Your Service joins Mae and Kitt some months after the events of Forever in Your Service, and finds them living together but keeping their relationship a secret in order to protect Mae from any possible consequences of Kitt’s profession. They regard themselves as man and wife even if there hasn’t been an official ceremony, and the fact that they’ve always shared a property (when we first met them, Mae, as well as being Kitt’s butler, was his landlady and lived in the basement flat of the house Kitt rents from her) means that outwardly nothing has changed.
Kitt has been out of the field for the last three months after having almost died and committed a serious breach of protocol (Forever in Your Service) and has instead been selecting and training new recruits, not something he particularly enjoys. He and Mae are still working out what ‘normal’ means for them when they find themselves catapulted back into the middle of a dangerous game begun months earlier. As Kitt heads off to a meeting with his superiors and his current trainee, Mae is involved in an accident that kills two women, one of whom was the fraud specialist at a prestigious auction house, and one of the people Kitt was due to meet that morning as part of the continued investigation into the funnelling of proceeds from the sale of valuable artefacts into international terrorism. Fortunately, Mae isn’t badly injured. She’s surprised when Kitt’s boss, Roger Llewellyn, visits her in hospital, and is then furious when he tells her why he’s there. He blackmails her into accompanying Kitt on his mission to Amsterdam to meet with someone else who may have been a victim of the fraud perpetrated by the artefacts smugglers.
Once Mae and Kitt arrive in Amsterdam, the plot kicks into high gear with hardly a pause for breath as the couple contends with treachery, a dead man in a sex shop, nasty plants, more dead bodies and sudden reappearance of the ghosts of Mae’s past – which look set to threaten their future.
True to Your Service is perhaps lighter on the romance than the previous books, although Kitt and Mae’s love and concern for one another is ever present and permeates the story. They’re nicely attuned to each other and work well as a team, even though Kitt fervently wishes Mae were safely tucked away somewhere else. He knows she’s resilient, capable, inventive, and more than able to look after herself, but knowing all that doesn’t stop him wanting to keep her safe and out of the line of fire. And Mae doesn’t want Kitt labouring under that guilt; she knew who he was and what his life was when she agreed to be with him – but that doesn’t stop her wishing he was well out of it. And they both know there’s no such thing as retirement for spies.
The plot is fairly complicated, and will probably not make any sense if you haven’t read at least the previous book (possibly both of them); it’s been a while since I read book two and I have to admit that it took me a while to get a handle on things.
Mae and Kitt are complex, likeable characters who are flawed, full of contradictions and upend established tropes. Kitt, late forties, “ugly-handsome”, charming and incredibly perceptive, is every bit the cold-eyed, tough and ruthless spy-hero and killer when he has to be; yet when it comes to Mae, he’s a pile of mush and is definitely the more romantically inclined of the two of them. Mae, a few years older than Kitt, is highly competent, self-reliant and pragmatic, and is somewhat dismayed to discover that while part of her is struggling to come to terms with the death and destruction that’s come into her life – some of it at her own hands, having killed two men (in self-defence) – another part of her is exhilarated by it. They’re committed to each other but are still figuring out how to balance their desire for a life together with the chaos and uncertainty that Kitt’s job brings with it.
Cards on the table; it took me a while to get into True to Your Service, and it wasn’t until I was around a third of the way through and things started to make a bit of sense that I felt the book really hit its stride. I love Mae and Kitt and their dynamic – how he denies his deep-seated desire to fight the good fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, and how she keeps him firmly grounded – and the author certainly knows how to construct a complex plot, but there were so many things going on that I felt at times as though I was being bombarded with too much information and no real way to make sense of it. Maybe that’s down to me and my brain being a bit scrambled (as may be true of a lot of us right now!) but the reveal as to what the story is really about comes fairly late on, and I’d have liked an inkling sooner. That isn’t to say that the author hasn’t laid out all the clues, because that’s not the case; looking back, the story is meticulously plotted, and after that reveal happened, I was all “ah, right – so that’s what that was about!”; it just took place a bit later than I’d have liked.
I did enjoy all the little nods to spy fiction, such as the fact that many of the secondary characters are named after authors, characters and actors who’ve appeared in the genre, from Kitt’s trainee Eaton (named, I’m guessing, for Shirley Eaton, the actress covered in gold paint in Goldfinger) and Charteris, (creator of The Saint – and whose first name, Leslie, is Kitt’s alias) to a bit part player named Connery, and Mae’s ‘translation’ of the name Hamish Kitt; and also their rather meta discussions about the nature of spy fiction and Mae’s ongoing novel/memoir, which, she explains:
“It’s got everything; suspense, action, thrills, murder, mystery, spies.”
“And true love, don’t forget true love. This has also been a love story.”
“Somebody often dies in a love story.”
“We’re both still alive, but I see your point. Perhaps you could stretch it out to a fourth book and give it a happy ending. Everyone loves a happy ending.”
He’s not wrong :)
Featuring two unique and unforgettable characters and an intricately-plotted mystery laced with humour and moments of real peril, True to Your Service is a fine addition to the In Service series.