Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Mr. Churchill's Secretary ★★★★

Let me take a moment to recommend a book I've just finished reading: Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal. (You can find it here at, or since it's just now released, it's probably at your local bookstore under Mystery/Thriller or New Fiction.)

Though this isn't a literary novel--it's a mystery novel, through and through, and fits nicely into that genre--it's still well-written, with some fine descriptive passages, and MacNeal truly has a keen eye for period details. The novel takes place in 1940s England, just before the Blitz, when the bombs start dropping over London. Our heroine is Maggie Hope, British born but American raised by an aunt who lived the better part of her life in a good old-fashioned Boston Marriage. Maggie is very much American in temperament, is whip-smart in math, is feminist and open-minded (like, she has gay friends). The literary world definitely needs more feminist heroines and fewer homophobes.

As the novel opens, Maggie is in London, there to oversee the selling of her grandmother's house (Grandmother has died). Her own parents died long ago in a car accident, or so she has been led to believe. One mystery in the book is--whatever happened to her father? That gets solved by the end.

The major mystery, though, centers around a joint Nazi/IRA plot to assassinate Winston Churchill, blow up St. Paul's Cathedral, and kidnap the Brits' star codebreaker. Working as a secretary at 10 Downing Street (it's a war, after all, and everyone must do their bit), Maggie gets drawn into the plot when the usual secretary is out sick, so Maggie must take dictation from Churchill himself. (And think about the writer's steel ovaries here. To have the guts to make Winston Churchill a character in a book is a pretty brave move, especially for a debut novelist.) Yet he's totally believable. You even come to be fond of him and his Romeo y Julieta cigars, and of another character, David, who hilariously yells out alliterative epithets in all the right moments.

I don't want to include any spoilers, so suffice it to say that all puzzles are solved, Maggie breaks a code, helps defuse a bomb, and saves the day; the bad guys (and girl) get their due; and even a kiss is shared at the end.

Maggie will be staying in London to work officially as a spy in MI-5 (they snap up talent when they see it), so we readers can expect a follow-up novel soon, then a third, and hopefully others to come. It's an impressive debut effort, and I look forward to the next installment.

(Disclosure: I kinda, sorta know the author. She's a friend of a friend. But I swear I have not overstated my enjoyment of the book. I wouldn't recommend it if I didn't truly like it.)

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