Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal, is the first Maggie Hope Mystery. After being educated in America, Maggie returns to England to sell her late grandmother’s house, but finds that she wants to stay in England because she feels that it is right for her. Maggie is asked to fill an empty position as Winston Churchill’s, the new prime minister, secretary—a position empty due to the murder in the prologue of the book. She is slightly hesitant to take the job:
She could make a difference. But not in the way she wanted, with mathematic capabilities. As a typist.
Maggie is both extremely intelligent and determined. She wants to use her skills that she is proud of—information theory and code breaking among them—but only men are hired for those jobs. In addition to just being intelligent, Maggie is well educated. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in mathematics, and before she went to England to sell her grandmother’s house she had been accepted to M.I.T. for a PhD program.
Susan Elia MacNeal, the author of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, went to Wellesley College like Maggie Hope. She additionally took cross-listed courses at M.I.T. while she was going to Wellesley. Unlike Maggie, who majored in mathematics, MacNeal majored in English. While in London, MacNeal visited the Churchill War Rooms where she got the inspiration for the Maggie Hope series-she realized that she wanted to write about one of Winston Churchill’s typists (Danos). MacNeal has said about the character she created that
“Maggie Hope is a cross between Nancy Drew and James Bond, serving the Allied cause in World War II. She’s a smart woman and an independent spirit who’s caught in a man’s world — that doesn’t always appreciate her gifts. But she carries on, regardless — which sometimes gets her into trouble!” (Danos).
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a spy thriller, full of suspense, political plots and conspiracies, action, and violence. Maggie quickly becomes entangled in a complicated web of intrigue that she did not expect.
The first line of the book grips the reader, and action starts right off the bat. The book starts with a murder in the prologue, and the intrigue goes on from there.
“Half an hour before Diana Snyder died, she tidied up her desk in the typists’ office of the Cabinet War Rooms” (MacNeal 3).
As the book starts right off with murder, the reader has many questions about the murder, but early on a mystery surrounding Maggie’s father is also introduced. Several characters make vague comments about her father, implying that there is something about him that Maggie does not know, and the truth slowly unravels as the novel moves forward.
The plot does slow down around the middle of the book, with a lot of historical information dropped on the reader. The book takes place in World War II era London, and the intrigue of the book involves plots against the British government. The setting is extremely developed, and while it is nice to get a good sense of the exact setting, the high level of detail sometimes slowed the story down and made the plot less interesting. Though the plot did drag, there were enough unanswered questions and intrigue that I was still interested in the story, and the plot started picking up again for the last third of the book. The last third of the book was action-packed, exciting, and shocking. Twists and turns revealed secret identities and enemy plots. Though I partially predicted one of the twists, there were still plenty that were shocking, and the suspense was high.
There were some aspects of the story that were not very strong-the romance was predictable and cliche, and some of the characters felt like caricatures. Though these aspects sometimes made me roll my eyes, and did not make the story seem very original, the espionage and thriller aspect of the book made up for it for me.
Maggie is the main character of the novel, but there is a wide cast of supporting characters, including Maggie’s roommates and other friends, IRA agents, and
Winston Churchill himself. One thing I especially appreciated about the book was that though the book takes place during the 1940s, there were two gay characters: one of Maggie’s best friends and the aunt that raised her. The inclusion of and treatment of these characters makes it stand apart from other spy thriller novels; in a typical crime novel, gay characters would not be present, or even if they were would be demonized, involved in a big scandal, or looked down upon by other characters. In this book, the two gay characters are two characters close to Maggie and of great importance to her, and Maggie in no way looks down on them because they are gay. Maggie and her gay friend even have a conversation about the realities of being gay in the time period the book takes place, when it was still illegal.
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first book in the Maggie Hope Mystery series, which currently has seven books published and an eighth in the works. This book won the Barry Award and was nominated for the Edgar Award, and the series as a whole has won and been nominated for several other awards (About Susan).
I give Mr. Churchill’s Secretary a 4/5 stars. Though there were weaker aspects of the book, the gripping suspense made up for it and made the book entertaining and exciting. If you are reader dislikes a mediocre middle, this book may not be for you-but if you want a historical spy thriller with a plucky main character and action and tension that will keep you on your seat, albeit the tension only being nail-biting for the last third of the book, then this is likely the book for you.
“About Susan.” Susan Elia MacNeal, www.susaneliamacneal.com/about.html.
Danos, Rebecca. “Wellesley Writes It: An Interview with Susan Elia MacNeal ‘91 (@Susanmacneal), New York Times-Bestselling Author of the Maggie Hope Mystery Series.” Wellesley Underground, 1 Apr. 2016, wellesleyunderground.com/post/142093981507/wellesley-writes-it-an-interview-with-susan-elia.
MacNeal, Susan Elia. Mr Churchill’s Secretary. Constable, 2012.
“Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (Maggie Hope Mystery, #1).” www.goodreads.com/book/show/10161216-mr-churchill-s-secretary.