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

September 4, 2016

Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (2012) is the first in a long-running series of World War II-era mysteries that feature Maggie Hope: a bright, ambitious woman with a math background who, by chance, lands a secretarial job in the Prime Minister’s office just as Winston Churchill takes power. A mix of espionage, murder, romance, and history, it’s a breezy, cozy read that I never quite fell in love with, but ultimately enjoyed.

Maggie, a British citizen with an American upbringing, is in London to sell a family estate when war breaks out, and unexpectedly does her bit for the war effort by accepting a position at No. 10 Downing Street. It’s a clerical position for which Maggie, a polyglot with exceptional math skills, is vastly overqualified, but she undertakes it dutifully, and in the end it places her in position to prove herself. If it’s not enough that she begins to uncover a conspiracy of Nazi and IRA agents working to unleash attacks on British soil, she also starts to learn that there’s more than a stuffy patriarchy keeping her career prospects in check. With the help of friends and colleagues, Maggie gradually reveals both the skeletons of her family history and the devious plans of the enemy, taking early steps toward becoming an important weapon in the Allied arsenal against the German war machine.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is an accessible, quick read, with a Masterpiece Theater vibe; it’s like Foyle’s War through a feminist lens, a refreshing World War II story that focuses on what women were up to, and up against, while the British were holding out alone against Germany. The beginning of the novel spends quite a bit of time on detailed historical world-building that seasoned readers might find remedial; I think this orientation is at the expense of a timely point of attack. But eventually the book develops an enjoyable mystery-solving rhythm, as Maggie uncovers secret after secret, and gets herself out of ever-more-dangerous jams. There’s a bit of a wish-fulfillment feel, a romanticizing flavor to its treatment of the era, with Maggie serving as a vicarious window on this turbulent time. But it’s also a thoughtful and confident entertainment, with a cast of likable characters exploring under-explored corners of the past. I’m wouldn’t call myself addicted, then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I dipped back into this well for another adventure.