Celeste Bradley finishes her Liar’s Club trilogy with the weakest tale of the lot in The Spy. Even so, it’s an acceptable read that will resonate more strongly with some readers than with others. I, unfortunately, was in the latter category.
James Cunnington, member of the Liar’s Club spy network, is on a mission to find the missing daughter of Britain’s best codebreaker, a man who may have defected to Napoleon’s side. James has other matters on his mind, too. He’s taken on the upbringing of a small urchin named Robbie, and he desperately needs some help. James cares about Robbie, but he can’t search for the missing woman and attend to Robbie’s education. A tutor is what he needs.
Phillipa Atwater has been searching for her missing father for several months, and she has run out of options. The only clue she has to his whereabouts is his codebook and a message he gave her before he was abducted – to go to London and find a man named Martin Upkirk. Upkirk, however, is nowhere to be found, and James Cunnington is asking after her father. She needs to get close to Cunnington, and find out what he knows.
Her first attempt to spy on James’ house comes to an abrupt end when she is discovered – by James himself. Phillipa decides on a risky plan. She crops her hair, dresses in some stolen men’s clothing, and passes herself off as “Phillip Walters”, tutor. James thinks there’s something not quite right, but puts it down to Phillip’s obvious youth and inexperience. Robbie, however, sees right through Phillipa’s disguise, and they agree to a truce. Robbie won’t tell James, and Phillipa will teach Robbie to read.
The fun starts when James begins having rather inappropriate thoughts about Robbie’s new tutor, and Phillipa finds herself wildly attracted to James. But Phillipa doesn’t trust James, as she has no idea who abducted her father, or even if he is still alive. Maintaining her disguise seems to be the best bet. Meanwhile, James’ life is complicated by his former lover, the beautiful Lavinia, whose treachery has led to the ruin of one of James’ closest friends.
Ms. Bradley has an effortless style to her prose, and the story flows smoothly. Readers will be swept right in. However, I found my attention wandering by the halfway mark. Perhaps it was the idea that a nine-year-old child could see straight through a deception, but a grown man would have no clue. Since it takes James nearly the entire story to figure out that “Phillip” is a woman, it makes him appear a bit thick. Then there’s the requisite need for sex, and since the author chooses to keep James in the dark about Phillipa’s identity, an element is introduced whereby Phillipa poses as a harem girl in order to seduce James and satisfy her sexual curiosity. This was so contrived, all it did was make the sex seem utterly gratuitous.
In the end, though Phillipa and James are likable enough, neither of them comes across as particularly astute. The highlight of the book is actually the subplot about Phillipa’s missing father, and her own untested ability at codebreaking. Robbie is urchinlike and cute. Lavinia is appropriately despicable. Characters from the first two books make their appearances. It’s somewhat entertaining, but not as memorable as the first two books in the series.
But then, three-heart reads are the most difficult to peg. Some readers will have a much more favorable reaction to The Spy than I did. If you enjoyed the The Pretender and The Impostor, this final installment is at least worth a look.