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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mr. Churchill's Secretary is a debut novel introducing Maggie Hope, whose parents were British, but who was raised in America.  Maggie arrives in London in 1939 to settle her grandmother's estate and sell her grandmother's house.  In September of that year, Britain declared war on Germany, and Maggie, who has made friends decides to stay and aid the war effort.

Winston Churchill  replaced Chamberlain as PM in May of 1940, and when one of  Mr. Churchill's secretaries is murdered,  Maggie is able to fill the opening, which puts her in a unique position at the heart of Britain's decision making.  Although Maggie is a mathematics whiz who postponed her entry to M.I.T. to settle her grandmother's estate, her skills are not needed in her current position...which is not to say, of course, that they will not be employed in the novel.

The historical information is interesting, and MacNeal's research as far as secretarial duties includes the memoir Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Elizabeth Layton Nel and a correspondence with Mrs. Nel.  She also cites works by other Churchill secretaries and Churchill's own memoirs of the period in the Historical Notes at the end of the novel.

The inclusion of IRA activity and links between the IRA and Nazi sympathizers and undercover agents operating in Britain was interesting.  There were, however, some historical inaccuracies that bothered me, especially concerning MI5.

Murder, spies, secret codes and code breakers, a little Bletchley Park, the Battle of Britain and the nightly bombing, the safe guarding of St. Paul's Cathedral by the Fire Watch...

Bothersome:  Maggie seems a little too modern for the time period and her mathematical brilliance didn't quite gel for me.  Some of the characters took up time, but did nothing to really advance the characterization of other characters or the plot.  The mystery concerning the death of Maggie's parents (can't say much because of spoilers) didn't ring true in many ways.

On the whole, the novel is a light, enjoyable read, but by no means as good as Winspear's series about Maisie Dobbs or the Charles Todd novels about Ian Rutledge.  The characters are not as well developed, the writing isn't as smooth, the events and history are not as well blended.  The second in the series is Princess Elizabeth's Spy due out in October.

Fiction.  Historical Mystery.  2012.  384 pages.


  1. A friend gave me a copy of this one, but I think I'll read all the Maisie Dobbs books first.

  2. Anna -- I'm a fan of Winpear's Maisie series. Maisie is a much more complex character!

  3. Maisie-now there's a series I could revisit in the future. While I usually love books with a bit of historical value, after reading your review, I may just give this one a miss (I have an ever-growing list of must reads that I would rather tackle). I was listening to an excerpt from Mr Churchill's Secretary on the Book Report radio show on the weekend and was still not decided. It's a great resource for keeping in touch with new books and authors showcased weekly, and the snippets offered often pique my interest enough to go and have a closer look-thus bringing me here! Thanks for the feedback and if you enjoy getting a feel for new and upcoming books, perhaps you may also enjoy the show. The schedule for the different shows is on their site(bookreportradio(dot)com).

  4. Jo-Anne - That ever-growing list--I recognize it! Thanks for letting me know about the Book Report, I'll have to check it out!

  5. I didn't know this was a series. If I consider reading it I will have to read the latest Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford books... Do you think I would like Ian Rutledge? I like Bess, but a much shorter series to undertake...

  6. I love the early Ian Rutledge books the best. Rutledge is still suffering from shell-shock (or, in modern terms, PTSD)and is having difficulty adjusting to post-war life.

    I like Ian Rutlege better than the Bess Crawford books, but I'm prone to favoritism. And I love Hamish, Rutledge's mental and unwanted companion.

  7. I've read and enjoyed the Masie Dobbs and Bess Crawford series, so when Kay posted her review for this new series, I added it to my TBR list. Now I'm not so sure. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to at least give it a try and see how I like it. I also want to try the Ian Rutlege series. Ah, so many books!! :)

  8. Les - It never hurts to try a novel that sounds interesting! Kay liked this one better than I did, but I did enjoy it.

    One of my favorite mystery authors is Reginald Hill (and I will forever regret not having any more of Dalziel and Pascoe), but his first books only hinted at how well the series (and characters) would develop.