It’s November of 1944 in Germany and adept American OSS agent Lilian Saint James has just been handed the perfect opportunity to insert herself into the home of a leading Nazi tactician, after saving the German army colonel’s young daughter from being run down by a car. After passing an investigation, she is sent to be a nanny in the Oberndorf home, where she begins to gather intelligence and take pictures of strategic maps of munitions factories, air fields and static U-boat locations that she hopes to pass on to the Allies. Her hopes are dashed, however, when the only two contacts available to her are neutralized by the SS. Fearing that her cover is blown, Lily must find a way to escape west past the battle lines into liberated France where, with the help of American Army troops, her undercover efforts are brought to fruition. After an all too brief recovery period, the ever-intrepid Lily, who refuses to be relegated to a desk job while the war continues, is requested to return to Germany to help rescue a downed British pilot and she jumps at the chance. Following this death-defying success, it would appear Lily’s days of intrigue are over, but again she manages to shrewdly insert herself into the action and, in the waning days of the European war, she arrives at the captured concentration camp of Buchenwald where she makes a discovery instrumental in identifying its horrific commanding officers who fled before the Allied arrival.
Seasoned author Ellen Butler’s first foray into historical fiction with the World War II spy novel, The Brass Compass, is a magnificent success filled with characters that remind the reader again and again why the moniker “greatest generation” is so aptly applied. The carefully constructed first-person narrative, perfectly in vogue with the vernacular and popular culture of the era, is flavored seamlessly with the many tongues that the multi-lingual Lily must use to navigate in a dangerous world where it seems no one can be trusted. On its own, as a novel of intrigue and espionage, The Brass Compass would stand as quite an achievement, but the story truly hits the high notes with the romance between its Ingrid Bergman look-alike protagonist and Milwaukee gentleman-turned-army major. Physical beauty aside, it is the internal thoughts, and moreover, the impetus to “do something more” for the war effort which simultaneously drive Lily and the reader forward in discovering the horrors of combat and the triumph of love.