Fans of the James Bond novels are in for quite a surprise if they are coming to Samantha Weinberg’s The Moneypenny Diaries series for the first time. What sets this series apart from all others in the literary 007 canon, and makes it all the more interesting, is that it’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint exactly who the target reader is. Weinberg is painstakingly careful in tying together the action and emotions in the story to real-life historical events at the time (Secret Servant takes place from early 1963 to mid-1964). In effect, the result is a novel that has widespread appeal. Whether one is a fan of the original Ian Fleming novels or Charlie Higson’s current Young Bond adventures, The Moneypenny Diaries series is one well worth examining.
While the first novel in the series, Guardian Angel, was a swift action/adventure tale from beginning to end, Secret Servant has an advantage. Book one was faced with the task of introducing and establishing the main characters of the series, but this time there is room to expand on what we know of them. This includes both allies and enemies. Guardian Angel seemed to focus equally on both James Bond and Jane Moneypenny in the storyline, bringing them together for their mission involving the Cuban Missile Crisis. This time the spotlight is clearly on Jane from beginning to end–and all the better for it.
In Secret Servant, the mission concerns the defection of Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby, who is dubbed ‘the greatest traitor of his generation.’ Without spoiling too much of the plot, the first half of the story revolves around the daily tasks Jane faces at her job, as well as the personal side of her life (her beloved “R” is present once again). The second half concerns Jane’s own mission and the many risks that accompany it. In this effect, the novel resembles an original Fleming adventure. Jane is excited that she finally will be handling an assignment on her own, this time without the protection of having James Bond at her side. Like many other Bond novels, Secret Servant features several locations around the world, including: Kingston, Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, Helsinki, and others.
As an added luxury of the continuous character development throughout, readers are treated to perhaps the most in depth look at the lives of M, Bill Tanner, and the others at SIS. Being M’s secretary, Jane gets an insider’s view at how bleak current events affect her boss. James Bond is also present, despite Jane being the center of attention. At the beginning of the story, he is reported missing in action following his ordeal with Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Japan. He eventually returns, brainwashed by the KGB, and attempts to take the life of M. Fleming fans will also recognize this section from The Man With The Golden Gun. After recovering from the incident, Bond is sent to deal with Francisco Scaramanga in Jamaica, while Jane concentrates her efforts on the Kim Philby mission. Bill Tanner is also given more to do in Secret Servant, being of great assistance to Jane late in the story. There are also subtle hints of his jealousy of Bond’s appeal to Jane, which she picks up on.
Besides dealing with Kim Philby, Jane is constantly subjected to fear of the possible return of Colonel Boris, one of the surviving villains from the first novel. Weinberg spends just the right amount of detail describing how he could jeopardize Jane’s chances of success on her mission. The suspense continues to build up to the eventual confrontation between the two–where a major plot point introduced in the first novel is finally explained. Another highlight of the novel is Jane’s encounter with the ‘mountainous’ and brutal Comrade Ludmilla, one who is particularly skillful with birch sticks. The scene is over quickly, but it comes as a bit of a surprise in that point in the story and exposes Jane to the more malignant aspects of an SIS mission.
While Jane proceeds on her mission from chapter to chapter, Weinberg cleverly ties in the current-day storyline of Kate Westbrook, Jane’s niece. Westbrook follows in Jane’s footsteps along the way, using all of her resources, even at the cost of her own job, to try to solve a mystery she believes her aunt stumbled upon: a mole within the SIS. At the end of the story, this mystery is left unsolved, but Westbrook is unyielding in her search for the truth, leaving Secret Servant: The Moneypenny Diaries on a truly intricatly designed cliffhanger and the reader eager for the next volume.