Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

When Maggie Hope takes the position of typist in 10 Downing Street, she finds herself taking dictation for the prime minister himself: Winston Churchill. In May 1940, this means having an inside perspective on British government in World War II. But Maggie has problems as well. How will she and her roommates protect themselves from the bombings? Why was her predecessor murdered? And how will she deal with the chain of events that follow her enquiries into her dead father's mysterious past?

I wanted very much to like this first effort by Susan Elia MacNeal. And there is much to like. Maggie and her five/six roommates are easily distinguished--no small feat amongst roommates--as are the young men who squire them around town. The plot is interesting, with intertwining threads that tie up nicely in the end. Churchill is more of a cameo than a character; although he has his moments of engaging in the plot, there is little to develop his personality or his relationship with Maggie, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on what you are hoping for.

But there is much to indicate that this is a first novel. The plot takes a chapter or two to take off, and the love interest occurs in such fits and starts that it is nearly startling when it turns up. An old joke misses the point when the punch line is omitted--I hope that error exists only in the review copy that I had. But Mr. Churchill's Secretary loses a star over one more weakness.

It strains the believability of a historical novel when 21st-century ethics wreathe historic characters, imbuing them with anachronistic attitudes by which the characters (a) judge their contemporaries, and (b) blatantly reflect on societal trends that are current decades or centuries later. 1940 is close enough to 2012 that Maggie's frustration with the patronizing attitude of the men with whom she works is acceptable. After all, she is a brilliant mathematician, with the academic credentials to prove it, and women were stepping up to fill many formerly masculine roles while the men fought on the front. But a homily on gay rights stepped over the line into fantasyland. Ms. MacNeal paved her way well--Maggie's aunt/guardian is a lesbian professor at Wellesley, and one of her closest friends is gay. But brilliant Maggie cannot be unaware of societal norms in the 1940s, and homosexuality would have been condemned as a perversion in all but the most radically liberal fringes of society, especially in 1940s Britain, when a war-office staffer would have been carefully vetted for any behavior that would make him open to blackmail. I cannot imagine that their little social circle could have accepted him as anything other than "a confirmed bachelor" and "a perfect gentleman" in that historic milieu, with any suspicions otherwise remaining unspoken.

But there is potential. If you like the sound of this, go for it.