Monday, April 8, 2019

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary
Bantam Books, 2012
© Susan Elia MacNeal2012
ISBN 978-0-553-59361-7

The first of (now) 7 books in the series featuring Maggie Hope, a gifted mathematician doing war work of one sort or another in England during World War II.  (5 of the first 6 books have been nominated for awards; I would be surprised if #7 is not nominated for something.)  And a very good debut it is.

Hope, an orphan whose English parents dies in a car crash when she was an infant, has been raised in the US by her aunt, Edith Hope (a professor of chemistry at Wellesley).  She has returned to England to sell her grandmother’s large, old London home (which, given the condition of the house and the state of the war—everyone expects a German invasion, is basically impossible).  And she gave up a place in the doctoral program in math to do so.  To make ends meet, she has acquired a set of five lodgers.  And Maggie decides to look for war work for which she is qualified.

She takes a shot at becoming a Private Secretary (basically, a chief of staff) for someone in the Government, and is rejected because she’s a woman.  She winds up, however, working as a secretary on the Prime Minister’s staff, working directly for Churchill: taking dictation, typing letters, speeches, reports, whatever needs to be done.  And she’s feeling that she’s being prevented from doing something much more.

London is wracked with explosions—both German bombs and IRA bombs—life is dangerous and, for many, cut short.  British Intelligence is, among other things, trying to put the IRA bombers out of existence.  And the IRA has some very large plans.  In the course of this, Maggie thinks she has stumbled across a coded IRA message.
It’s a complex tale, with much sorrow and also personal and career triumphs.  Maggie Hope (and I love the name) is an appealing character (although perhaps too good to be true, but that’s OK).  And parts of the book are very dark, very disturbing.  The end of the book, of course, is not the end of the story.  The war has barely begun (for all that it’s been going on for a year and a half), and the outcome is, in the middle of 1940, hardly pre-ordained (indeed, several books in which the Germans invade and conquer England make clear how contingent the outcome is; Len Deighton’s SS-GB is, I think, the best of these stories).  So there is much more for Maggie to do, and following her through this journey should be a very rewarding trip. 

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