January 21, 2014

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary

by Susan Elia MacNeal

Like its heroine, this mystery is engaging, energetic, and unpolished. Maggie Hope is a young American, a recent Wellesly graduate who is looking forward to her MIT doctorate, when she is dispatched to London to sell the house she has unexpectedly inherited. She winds up stranded in the blitz, naturally, and inevitably lands a job in Winston Churchill’s typing pool. This is a fine setting, but we also have a cast of villains, plots, secret codes, and cliff-hangers that would provide ample plotting for three novels and that leave Maggy and the reader alike bemused and rather breathless.

The history is pounded home – would a typing clerk really have been in the gallery for “we shall fight them on the beaches?” – as if the reader had not heard of the war; I sympathize, but novels and even mysteries in 1940 London are not uncommon, and the typical mystery reader has read a few mysteries. We’ve just been here with Connie Willis, and then with Sarah Waters, and we’ve got Simon Mawer’s Trapeze on the stack; perhaps we could take some of the more familiar elements as read and aim for something fresh.