I picked up Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and could not put it down—there went all my other responsibilities in life, neglected. MacNeal writes clever, enticing mysteries set in London during World War II with an inventive mathematician named Maggie Hope as her sleuth.
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary grabs you with superbly detailed historical setting and excellent character development. The book places you into the middle of London under the Blitz; bombs fall, sirens wail, and Maggie Hope ends up, by seeming chance—caution, reader—as Churchill’s secretary. That Maggie has a mind for ciphers, codes, and mathematical theories might turn out to be more useful than her dictation and typing skills. MacNeal’s “historical notes” tell about her inspiration for Maggie and her fictional exploits in the real life Churchill secretaries, Marian Holmes and Elizabeth Layton Nel. MacNeal portrays Maggie’s lively roommates and the staff surrounding Churchill with precision and depth. Gradually we realize that these intriguing personalities have secrets, and some of them may be deadly for the entire English nation. MacNeal keeps you guessing. As if Hitler weren’t foe enough, this complex plot reminds us that the IRA also plotted England’s downfall during this period.
One setting done especially well is the stifling, tense world of the War Rooms, the underground “lair” used by Churchill’s staff. It’s the opening setting of the book, but we return to it regularly, the fulcrum of the action in many ways. The air is supplied by a “special ventilation system” tinged with “odors of floor wax, chemical toilets, and cigarette smoke.” With no natural light, the rooms are lit only by “green-glass pendant lamps,” next to which hang gas masks. The dull yellow walls, once white, and the worn brown linoleum floors seem to reflect the situation of a country under siege. But when Churchill enters, “the office crackled with electricity and there was a sense of urgency in the air,” even while his Romeo y Julieta cigars leave a “pungent trail of smoke behind him.” MacNeal paints the larger-than-life Churchill in all his charismatic, bullying, brilliant dimensions. You’ll feel like you have been pulled back in time to a country that faces imminent destruction unless everyone acts with great courage for God and Country.
As I finished the book and looked back, there were some strands of the plot and characters’ choices that occasionally strained believability. However, it’s a measure of MacNeal’s ability to pull you along with speed and clarity that in the midst of reading I did not feel unduly jarred by any of them.
If you love to get lost in a nail-biting, well-told historical spy story with a touch of romance— If you enjoy bright young women facing the world of men’s prejudices and surmounting them— If WWII intrigues you as a setting for a thriller— If you’re a fan of Jacqueline Winspear, Elizabeth Speller, Rhys Bowen, and others of their skillful ilk— then read Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. A second book in the series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy will be out in October of this year. I’ve read a review copy and it’s just as page-turning as Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.