Susan Elia MacNeal

The Sunday Salon: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and What’s On the Reading Horizon

You must know by now how much I enjoy historical fiction, so it’s no surprise that I was eager to dive into a new mystery series with a unique historical setting. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first volume featuring the intrepid Maggie Hope, who works as a secretary in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet. Maggie’s skills extend far beyond her expertise in taking Churchill’s dictation on the silent typewriter keyboards he’s had created especially for his staff. Maggie is a gifted mathematician and code-breaker, and these skills are soon discovered and put to very good use.

Like any good historical novel, the period details are just as interesting to me as the plot of the book. Susan Elia MacNeal does a wonderful job of setting the scene and introducing all kinds of information about the period. The behind-the-scenes look at Churchill’s staff  was reminiscent of watching an episode of West Wing on TV. In a recent interview at All Things Girl, MacNeal said she was "completely and totally immersed in World War II history — books, documentaries, talking with Blitz survivors. I even had the honor of corresponding with Mrs. Elisabeth Layton Nel, one of Winston Churchill’s actual wartime secretaries. I also learned how to darn socks, make wartime recopies and sniff vintage perfume; I went to second-hand clothing stores to look at clothes, gloves, and hats. And I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time in London at the marvelous Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, as well as the Imperial War Museum, Bletchley Park, Chartwell, and, of course, Windsor Castle."

It paid off big time, because Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was a wonderfully drawn portrait of its era. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, which is already on my shelf.

But before I see what Maggie’s up to next, I’ll be reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple and Don’t Bother Me, I’m Reading, a memoir by Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air series.

What’s on your reading horizon?

PS - A serendipity...Before reading Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I read the novel Motherland, by Amy Sohn, a witty and interesting novel set in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Oddly enough, Susan Elia MacNeal lives in Park Slope, and is acquainted with Amy Sohn. I love stuff like that :)