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. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

J.M. Gregson, Murder at the Nineteenth

J.M. Gregson, Murder at the Nineteenth
Original publication William Collins Sons &Co., LTD, 1989
© 1989 J.M. Gregson
ebook publication Endeavour Media LTD., 2018

In the first of nearly 30 books (the most recent is dated 2016) in the series featuring Superintendent John Lambert and Detective Inspector Bert Hook (policemen in an English town/city), the Chairman of the local golf club (James Sheperd) is found murdered in his (locked) office by Lambert.  (Shepherd had called Lambert, asking him to come to the club at about 10 PM, suggesting he had something very serious to discuss.)  The weapon is a large knife originally from the Middle East.  Shepherd lalo had a slightly earlier committee meeting; five of the more prominent members of the club, four of whom chaired a club committee (the fifth was the club’s secretary), were the attendees.

It soon becomes pretty clear that Lambert has five suspects—the attendees of that evening’s meeting.  And none of them have particularly good alibis for the crucial time.

I don’t recall what induced me to buy this book, but I’m always on the lookout for a god series, and the length of this one seemed to suggest that if has some promise.  I will say that the setting was nicely handled, although I don’t think that the actual investigation would stand much scrutiny in comparison with actual investigative practices in England.  In fact I doubt that Lambert would be allowed to conduct the investigation—he’s a member of the golf club and in fact has a role in its administration; he is close to, if not intimate with, all the suspects.  And there’s a specific thing about the writing…

The book, in print, would, I think, run about 200 pages.  But the story was really not complex enough to support the length.  Gregson fills a lot of pages with what can only be called interior monologues (somewhat odd, actually, as the story is written in the third person).  These do not add much, in my opinion, to the story.  My best guess is that, absent those digressions and diversions, we’d have a book of maybe 124-140 pages, too long to be a novella, but too short to be a novel (or at  best a very short novel). 

And the conclusion seemed to me to be both ad hoc and fairly obvious.  The evidence, such as it was, seemed thin.  But the author’s attitude toward the killer was, throughout, much less generous than his depictions of the other potential suspects.  So the ending fell a bit flat.  This was not, by any stretch, a bad book, and I might give a later entry a try (many of them appear also to involve golf).  But, at least for now, these are not on my must-read list.