The Electra McDonnell Series
“The Electra McDonnell series” by Ashley Weaver blends a mystery within a spy thriller. There are spies, murders, a tinge of romance, and some historical tidbits to entice readers.
A Peculiar Combination is the first in the Electra McDonnell series. She was raised by her Uncle Mick and has become part of the family business, pickpocketing, opening locks and safes, to steal valuables. Unfortunately for them they were set up and caught stealing. Because WWII is in full swing, an intelligence branch of the British government set them up to help in the war effort. They need Ellie to crack a safe open in a traitor’s house. The government intelligence official, Major Ramsey, gives Ellie a choice, either Ellie helps him to break into a safe and retrieve blueprints critical to the war effort before they can be delivered to a German spy, or she and her uncle go to jail. Mick and Ellie are also patriots, so it is a no brainer for her to accept the challenge. From there, it becomes very enjoyable as Major Ramsey and Ellie are constantly butting heads.
The Key to Deceit is the second book of the series. The Major once again enlists Ellie’s help in opening a locked bracelet from the arm of a dead woman found in the Thames. She is also able to provide some insight into the dead woman’s station in life from her clothing. A search reveals a camera in the bracelet, a clock key, and a bag of jewels hidden in the lining of a sable coat. Ellie and the major soon realize the dead woman was working as a spy for the Germans. Now they must uncover the German spy ring before the Nazis get their hands on important information.
Also, back in the story is Felix Lacy, a good friend of Ellie, a possible romantic interest, and someone who forges documents. He helped in the first book and now is enlisted by Ellie to help her with a crooked pawnshop owner. He is also helping her in finding the truth about her mother, convicted of killing her father, even though she proclaimed her innocence.
It becomes more apparent in this book that there is a love triangle between Felix, Ellie, and the Major. Felix wants to go beyond friends with her and become more intimate. While the Major is trying to remain professional but does have feelings for her.
Playing It Safe has just been released, the third book in the series. Ellie is given a new assignment by the Major. She is to travel under an assumed identity to the port city of Sunderland and once there await further instructions. After just arriving, she witnesses an unnatural death. A man falls dead in the street in front of her, with a mysterious message clutched in his hand. Ellie’s instincts tell her that the man’s death is connected in some way to her mission, and she goes to investigate covertly. While searching where he lives, she and the Major are united. They learn that a ring of counterfeiters is making both money and fake identity cards for German spies to operate in England. They find out that the printing plates are missing and know they must find them before the traitorous German assets. Ellie and the major are locked in a battle of wits and a race against time with an unknown and deadly adversary. They must also contend with the blitzkrieg where the Germans are unleashing bombs to try to break the British spirits.
Readers also learn more of the backstory about Ellie’s mother and whether she was innocent or guilty of murdering her father. Although Felix does not make much of an appearance the love triangle is still alive and well and he does help Ellie uncover the meaning of some written notes.
This series is very engrossing. What should upset readers is that they must wait a whole year for another installment, hopefully not the last. Readers should want a lot more books with these wonderful characters and riveting plotlines. Ideally people should read the books in order because, even though there are different riveting espionage mysteries there are overarching plotlines.
Elise Cooper: Did your professional experience help you to write?
Ashley Weaver: I have worked in libraries since the age of 14. I enjoy reading non-fiction and that is where I got the idea for the series. I think being a librarian is helpful in the sense that I have all the research information and researching strategies I need at my fingertips! I am now the Technical Services Coordinator for the Parish Libraries in Louisiana. We were the first in the US to have a library built in a book mobile for rural areas. Someone can request a book and when we are in the area, they can pick it up.
EC: How did you get the idea for the series?
AW: I was reading a lot of WWII non-fiction and read a book titled Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. It is about a petty thief imprisoned on the Chanel Islands during WWII, occupied by Germany. They released him and trained his as a spy, parachuting him into England. He went to the allied authorities and said, ‘the Germans think I will spy for them do you want me to spy for you instead.’ He became a double agent. This made me think how all these criminals had skills before the war that they were able to use to help the allied cause. Each book has its own caper, where the characters must solve the espionage mystery. But there are also a few overarching plots.
EC: What about the books, 1 – 3?
AW: I enjoyed finding out how criminals can open a safe and the historical background of what those in England had to endure including the German Blitzkrieg and the major rationing. With A Peculiar Combination, book 1, I knew I wanted to make the female heroine, Ellie, a safe cracker for the espionage angle. For Playing It Safe, book 3, I read a book called The Falcon Thief about how someone smuggled and sold falcon eggs. This gave me the idea to work birding into the third book. I learned a lot about birds and decided to incorporate it into the story. I mention in the book how, during WWII, it was legal in England to shoot falcons because they were preying on the carrier pigeons, and officials worried it would interfere with messages being sent back and forth to occupied territories.
EC: How would you describe Uncle Mick?
AW: He has a flair for the exaggeration, focused, jovial, spontaneous, a little bit wily. He loves a challenge with a quick-thinking mind that can solve problems. He is the father figure to Ellie as she grew up.
EC: How would you describe Ellie?
AW: Good instincts, very intelligent, as well as street smart. She can be overconfident with a slight temper, stubborn, and independent. She likes to be in control but is adaptable.
EC: She also speaks a little about women’s rights?
AW: In book 2, The Key to Deceit, I put in this quote by her, “Contrary to what you believe it is possible for women to know about things outside of the kitchen.” She is sarcastic with the comments how the men in her life think they are strong and protective, for the helpless damsel. Yet, her uncle trained her no different than her two male cousins, who are more like brothers. During WWII a lot of women took the male jobs who were out fighting. The way she was raised has given her this inner confidence.
EC: Why the second plotline with her mother who gave birth to her in prison and then died?
AW: I wanted to have something about Ellie’s backstory. I liked the idea she has an affectionate loving family that supports her, but she does have some tragedy in her past and some questions she needs answers too.
EC: What about Major Ramsey?
AW: He is secretive, bold, stoic, determined, clever, and can be devious as well as authoritarian. He comes off as having a superior attitude. There are times he puts on a façade and comes across charming.
EC: Felix who is Ellie’s childhood friend also helps with the espionage?
AW: He is polished, likes to flirt, easy going, a teaser, and can forge documents.
EC: What about the love triangle between Felix, the Major, and Ellie?
AW: The Major comes from a privileged background while Felix and Ellie are from a different class. It is like opposites working together. She sees the Major as disconcerting and irritating.
The Major can read her mannerisms, her moods. He wants to be intimate but is trying to be professional. Because he is a military man, he does not have the same societal views as the elite class. More of a problem is that she is a rule braker and he is a rule follower, with him expecting those working for him to obey his orders and she is not one to follow orders. Her fiery personality is what attracts him to her. There is a little give and take because both are flexible when they need to be.
Regarding Felix he is very conscious of her feelings. He is very supportive of her. She sees him as a friend, but he is jealous of how the Major and she interact.
EC: Does the love triangle represent something more to Ellie?
AW: Yes. She is not just deciding between the two men, but her two different futures. With Felix she can continue her criminal enterprises, but with the Major she knows being from different worlds she would have to adapt and change a bit. She is wondering who she wants to be when the war ends.
EC: Next book?
AW: There is one more, book 4, which is the last book in my contract. I am waiting to hear back but hopefully there will be more, fingers crossed. At some point Ellie will decide between Felix and the Major. In book 4 we know who she is leaning towards. It takes place in 1941. They are back in London. Ellie knows of a robbery ring operating. Because of her family ties to the criminal world, she thinks these burglaries can be tied to espionage. She tells the Major about it. The network of criminal friends will be pulled in.