Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal: A review

This series was recommended to me since I enjoy historical mysteries and I decided to give it a whirl.

Maggie (Margaret) Hope is the daughter of English parents who was raised in America after both her parents (presumably) were killed in an auto accident. She had an English grandmother, mother of her aunt and her father, whom she only knew when she was a baby and whom she didn't remember. But when the grandmother died in the late 1930s, she left everything to Maggie, who by then was a college graduate and looking forward to continuing her education in graduate school. She was forced to delay her plans when she had to go to England to sort out the estate.

Two years later, it is 1940 and England is on the brink of war. Maggie is living in the old family home with some other young women as renters. One of the young women is an American named Paige whom she knew in college. The estate still is not settled and Maggie is slowly making a life for herself in England.

Winston Churchill becomes prime minister. The young woman - of course it is a woman - who is assigned as his typist is brutally murdered as she is going home one night during blackout. A new typist is needed and Maggie Hope gets the job, even though she is supremely overqualified and is a mathematician not a typist/stenographer.

At some point, Maggie feels the need to visit the graves of her parents. (Yes, she's been there for a couple of years and hasn't felt this need before.) She goes to the cemetery and easily found the grave of her mother. But there was none for her father. She asked a groundskeeper who told her no one by that name was buried there, but that a mysterious man used to bring flowers to her mother's grave, although he hasn't been there for some time. Could it be that her father, the brilliant mathematician, is still alive? And if so, why has he not contacted her in all these years? Maggie is determined to find the answer and that eventually leads her into all kinds of peril. 

In an afterword, the writer explains that her character of Maggie is actually informed by memoirs of women who served in that role during the war. Perhaps it is because of this that the narrative is filled with historical details which make for interesting reading. (For example, I learned what "barrage balloons" were.) 

The book actually started out quite strongly and I was enjoying the read, but then the writer just kept throwing in more and more complications. It's not just Nazis, it's also the IRA. Maybe Maggie's father is alive but he's crazy. No, he's just pretending to be crazy; it's his MI-5 cover story. More and more characters are added to the mix until it is almost impossible to keep up with who's who. And if both of her children are actually alive, why did Maggie's grandmother leave her entire estate to Maggie? We have coders and codebreakers, Bletchley Circle and MI-5 on every street corner and through it all, including the falling bombs, the ordinary Englishman/woman "Keeps Plodding On."

Then came the climax which turned out to actually not be the climax. In fact, the book went on and on and on after the original denouement until I wanted to say, "Yes, we know all that. Now wrap it up already!" 

Knowing when and how to end a narrative is an art and one that a lot of very good writers struggle with. It's particularly common, I think, with first books which this one is. In the end, the long goodbye caused me to reassess what I had originally thought would be a four-star read. I subtracted a star and if I had been brutally honest, I probably should have subtracted two.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Comments

  1. I burst into laughter when you said "In fact, the book went on and on and on after the original denouement until I wanted to say, "Yes, we know all that. Now wrap it up already!" And again when you said "I subtracted a star and if I had been brutally honest, I probably should have subtracted two." Oh, Dorothy! That was brutal...and funny. :-D Too bad the author didn't know when to stop. It can be forgiven in a first novel though. Maybe the next in the series will be better.

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    1. I'm told that the writing does improve in later books, and it is interesting to note that this book was actually nominated for a couple of awards including the Edgar for best first novel! The writer has a good idea for a book/series, so I probably will give her another chance a bit later on.

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  2. Oops. Take a chance on a book time. I take it you will not be following this series? The title is good.

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    1. It's always good to try out a new series and, as I noted to Carmen, I do like the idea of this one, so I may try another one and see how it goes.

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