REVIEW: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver
The first in the Electra McDonnell series from Edgar-nominated author Ashley Weaver, set in England during World War II, A Peculiar Combination is a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author’s signature wit.
Electra McDonnell has always known that the way she and her family earn their living is slightly outside of the law. Breaking into the homes of the rich and picking the locks on their safes may not be condoned by British law enforcement, but World War II is in full swing, Ellie’s cousins Colm and Toby are off fighting against Hitler, and Uncle Mick’s more honorable business as a locksmith can’t pay the bills any more.
So when Uncle Mick receives a tip about a safe full of jewels in the empty house of a wealthy family, he and Ellie can’t resist. All goes as planned—until the pair are caught redhanded. Ellie expects them to be taken straight to prison, but instead they are delivered to a large townhouse, where government official Major Ramsey is waiting with an offer: either Ellie agrees to help him break into a safe and retrieve blueprints that will be critical to the British war effort, before they can be delivered to a German spy, or he turns her over to the police.
Ellie doesn’t care for the Major’s imperious manner, but she has no choice, and besides, she’s eager to do her bit for king and country. She may be a thief, but she’s no coward. When she and the Major break into the house in question, they find instead the purported German spy dead on the floor, the safe already open and empty. Soon, Ellie and Major Ramsey are forced to put aside their differences to unmask the double-agent, as they try to stop allied plans falling into German hands.
Dear Ms. Weaver,
World War II is definitely the “go-to” setting for books these days. But to be honest I’m getting a bit tired of the angsty plots and covers with spitfires flying over the head of the heroine whose back is turned towards us. This plot sounded a bit more fun and unconventional. Well, I honestly have to admit that I had a pretty good time reading this first in a new series and had only a few issues with it.
Opening in media res we discover heroine Ellie and her Irish uncle Mick about to break into a house for what they think will be an easy job. As the blurb reveals, things don’t go their way as they learn that if something seems too easy, it’s probably going to end badly. They’ve been neatly scooped up and with no other options, Ellie agrees to Major Ramsey’s demands.
When the required job goes pear-shaped, Ellie surprises herself as well as Ramsey with her request and desire to keep working on the case. Two cousins and a childhood friend are in the services and she feels it to almost be her patriotic duty to do her bit. Soon she and Ramsey are clashing over almost everything as Ellie has a temper and Ramsey is used to issuing orders. As the plot gets more convoluted, will they be able to determine who is trying to pass secrets to German agents and stop them in time?
With the groundwork being laid for a series, there are a lot of characters to introduce and relationships to establish not to mention the mystery to solve and a traitor to catch. Everything is told from Ellie’s first person POV but given her family history in crime and the need to be observant, we learn what we need to know and often before Ellie figures it out. She’s smart mouthed and independent while Ramsey is buttoned down and likes to be in charge. Of course sparks fly and at times glances are exchanged but the romance – if there is to be one – will have to wait on further books. We’re left with them finishing up this case and Ramsey telling Ellie that she and her Uncle are to refrain from any more housebreaking in case he needs their assistance again.
I have some issues with how Ellie and her family are presented as usually law abiding until they can’t pay the bills with her cousins gone to war. In reality, they’ve been stealing, lockpicking and safecracking for years but in a bid to make her someone we can root for, Ellie and Co are supposed to only steal every now and then, while Uncle Mick has a job as a well known locksmith. They’re criminals but not really bad criminals, see. Then Ellie hurls herself into the case because treason is a line she won’t see crossed. For me, making Ellie and her family be hardworking criminals who get caught and then initially blackmailed into doing right before changing sides wholeheartedly would have avoided all this effort to bend over backwards and also made her switch mean a bit more.
The case follows a lot of suspects, has situations that bring Ellie and Ramsey together but also adds another character into what might turn out to be a love triangle. Perhaps. There are a few red herrings to distract readers along the way but the book held my attention and was a fast read. A couple of things about the mystery ended up not making sense but I could hand wave past them. There are times when clues are discovered almost too easily. And of course Ellie must dash into danger just because it’s what feisty heroines do. Ramsey is very uptight and stuffed into his shirt while Ellie only has to be spoken to in the wrong tone of voice to feel her temper rising to the boiling point. But it’s entertaining enough that I’d be willing to go along for another adventure to see where this all goes and maybe see a resolution of Something From Ellie’s Past. C+