Oct 19 2013

Review: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

4 out of 5 stars.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal is the first book in a series of mystery novels with heroine Maggie Hope set in London in WWII.

The beginning of a book tells the reader a lot of things about the story they are about to read. They either decide they are interested and can’t wait to read on or they decide to put the book down and move onto more promising reads. MacNeal knows her genre well and this novel starts off with a wonderful atmosphere, some impending doom, a false scare, and lastly – what we all hope for in a good mystery novel – a murder.

If this book has a fault (and that is a big “if”) it is that after the exciting prologue things seems to stagnate for a while and nothing really big happens in the way of plot. Maggie gets a job working for the Prime Minister and we are introduced to the people that matter in her life and her back story. However, in a poetic way, this actually works with the story mirroring Britain hovering in “the bore war” as they waited for the inevitable air assault from Germany. The excitement and action do begin again in earnest after the bombs begin falling on Britain and after this event it hardly lets up. All the effort that went into what I would call the first act to set up the backstory of the characters and their emotional ties, pays off big time in act two because MacNeal can focus much more fully on the action itself without having to over explain why the characters feel or act a certain way.

MacNeal did meticulous research for this novel, adding to the ability of the reader to immerse themselves in the story. Often when dealing with a historical novel the author can overtax its readers with long passages on history or, a much worse offense, simply omit it altogether and allow the reader to fill in the gaps themselves. In this case it is obvious that MacNeal soaked up the time period and the people as much as she could before she began writing. She steeped herself in British culture, the landscape of London, the war records, and real-life people who lived through the war and worked with Mr. Churchill. The research is so thorough that the reader feels as if they have actually been transplanted back in time and can visualize, feel, smell, and hear London as it was back then.

Certain things really help to enhance the believability of this story: the dialogue the characters undertake regarding their political views in multiple scenes includes viewpoints not only from the British, but from the Irish and the tensions caused by the IRA, from Americans, and even from German sympathizers. If these characters had lived in London during that time, and especially if they were working with the PM all of these issues would have been on the forefront of their minds and so their inclusions were not only important but necessary.

The descriptions of the British people’s customs and national personality were not only accurately, but I think, lovingly portrayed as only one with a deep appreciation and connection with the culture could manage. I found myself actually wondering if MacNeal were British or American herself (before you Google it, she’s American), which is some of the highest praise I can render given my own love for the British culture. The little bit of humour infused into the novel is also befitting to an English mystery novel. British humour is its own entity, and I believe the humour presented is quite the right style. For example, on page 14 a character states, “There’ll be no blood, toil, tears, or sweat until I have some goddamned tea.” And on page 66 the PM makes a joke about labels for boxes of 12-inch gun muzzle protectors stating “I want a label for every box… saying ‘British, size medium.’ That will show the Nazis…who’s the master race!”

MacNeal also has a wonderful handle on the landscape of London – how rails were torn down for metal for munitions, the protection of important monuments such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the blackout covers for the windows. Her descriptions are, at times, breathtaking, and are often used to set up a coming scene. For example on page 42, after a paragraph description of Herrick Street, MacNeal concludes with, “Under the heaviness of the water droplets, flowering trees wept pale pink petals down into the gutters.” and on page 121, describing the attack of the Luftwaffe “There were hundreds…of planes circling overhead, black insects against the sky, leaving silvery vapor trails against the blood-red clouds, darkening in the setting sun.”

MacNeal’s dedication to research didn’t just apply to her rendering of Wartime Britain – but also to her main character, Maggie. Maggie is supposed to be a math whiz of sorts and, before the war, was going to study at the prestigious MIT University. So when it comes time for Maggie to use her skills in coding, it is important to the integrity of the character that a little something about codes is actually conveyed to the reader. MacNeal could have taken the lazy way out and used any number of literary tricks to avoid actually having to spell out or make any codes, but she didn’t. We, as a reader, are actually walked through numerous codes from beginning to end, making Maggie’s character very believable and concrete.

The last bit of research that was necessary to make this story a success was dedicated to the person of Winston Churchill himself. The interactions that Mr. Churchill has with Maggie and the various other characters are obviously fictional representations, but as MacNeal spent a great deal of time in conversation with actual private secretaries for Mr. Churchill, I think we can rest assured that if the PM had really met any of MacNeal’s characters, his exchanges with them would be quite close to how MacNeal describes them. The charisma of Churchill is very evident as his sometimes unruly behaviour, and even a touch of that marvelous wit he was known for. It is a tricky thing to represent a real person in a work of fiction, but I think that MacNeal treated the person of Churchill with respect and honesty and her rendering of him feels very natural and true.

Another point that MacNeal delivered the goods on was that in all the best mysteries it is never enough to have one encompassing mystery to focus on, but rather you need to egg your readers on by introducing more and more intrigue as the storyline continues. This book has multiple mysteries that need solving ranging from the murder in the prologue, to the truth about what happened to Maggie’s parents, to the outcome of a plot to hand Britain over to the Nazis to a big twist involving one of the main characters. Each story is interesting in itself, but MacNeal made good use of switching between different stories to build suspense in each one and matching the level of excitement and climax in each story to keep the reader wanting to read on. MacNeal also made sure to give each mystery a personal edge to at least character so that there is a satisfying payoff not only in terms of action and suspense, but also emotionally for the reader.

Knowing this book was to have sequels, I was looking for a few things out of the ending – all of which I got. There was excitement and action almost up to the last, which leaves the reader feeling satisfied and engaged and also hints that there will be more action to come in the next books. It was also important for the reader to have a proper ending for Maggie’s first adventure and MacNeal handles her denouement perfectly with just the right amount of reflection on events past, plans for the future, and a beautifully worded, hopeful last paragraph.

So, if you’re like me, you’ll be heading out to grab a copy of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy after you finish Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.


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