The third debut novel up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award for Best First Novel is Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. This historical spy thriller reimagines London, 1940, as Britain is on the edge of entering WWII, the IRA is working hand-in-glove with the Nazis, and social mores are changing, especially for women… but not fast enough.
Protagonist Maggie Hope is a British citizen raised in the United States by her aunt, about to head off for graduate studies in mathematics when the death of an elderly relative back in England compels her to London to settle the estate. Her group of friends include two who work at #10 Downing Street, and when the prime minister’s typist is stabbed to death in an apparent robbery attempt, Maggie is encouraged to apply for and accept the offer to take her place.
Little does she know that there are wheels within wheels. Her father, a brilliant mathemetician who died in the same auto accident that killed Maggie’s mother, is referenced in a mysterious way. What really happened to the PM’s typist? And it appears that one of her supposed friends may be an IRA terrorist. Maggie uses both her brains – to break a code in a newspaper advertisement in order to foil a plot to assassinate Winston Churchill – and her moxy to make the transition from #10 Downing Street to MI-5.
Here’s what worked well for me: MacNeal does a great job of evoking 1940s London, the plot keeps you turning the pages, and the slowly emerging romance between Maggie and her colleague, John, is handled deftly.
Not so good: Too many coincidences (the Virginia debutante as an Irish terrorist?), not enough insight into the characters (except for Maggie, David and John, everybody else is cardboard), and a ridiculous amount of violence that doesn’t particularly advance the plot.
Ranking the three debut novels: Easy-peasey. Mr. Churchill’s engaging secretary goes right to the bottom of the list. Despite its flaws, Black Fridays is still the superior read. Historical fiction has it tough… not only does it have to be accurate (catching the author out is a favorite game of many readers), but it has to have a compelling plot, characters we care about, and a real mystery to be unravelled. I’m afraid that Mr. Churchill’s Secretary comes up short.
MWA Edgar (Best First Novel) ranking so far: