Thursday, January 2, 2014

Mr. Churchill's Secretary (Maggie Hope Mystery #1), by Susan Elia MacNeal

Bantam, ISBN 9780553593617, April 2012

Margaret Hope returned to England where she was born, unwillingly, to oversee the sale of her newly deceased grandmother's house. That her paternal grandmother was not long dead was a surprise to her; the aunt who raised her was deeply estranged from her mother and had allowed Maggie to believe she was dead.

It's 1940 and Maggie has something rare and wonderful for a woman in that time: acceptance into the graduate program in mathematics at MIT, after obtaining her B.S. from Wellesley. Delaying her entry for a year to go to England is totally not what she wants.

And then the house doesn't sell, and she's stuck for a while, and starts to make friends. Some of them move into her grandmother's house with her.

As the book opens, a young woman in the secretarial pool in the Prime Minister's office is murdered on her way home. A replacement is needed quickly, and Maggie's connections are just good enough. It's true she wanted a position as a private secretary, doing research that her education eminently qualifies her to do, but it's no real surprise to discover they won't consider a mere woman for such a position. She takes the lesser job, because she's increasingly committed to England and wants to contribute what she can to the war effort.

What Maggie doesn't know is that something far more significant than her gender is keeping her from the coveted post, and nearly barred her from the job she did get. She thinks both her parents died in a car crash when she was a baby. She thinks that one of her housemates, Paige Kelly, is simply another American girl, a Wellesley graduate, who worked for Ambassador Kennedy before he was removed from his post.

And no one tells her that the young woman she's replacing, Diana Snyder, wasn't killed in a simple mugging.

As Aunt Edith tries to persuade her to come home, as determinedly as she once persuaded Maggie to go to England, Maggie decides she's finally ready to face her parents' graves--and makes a startling and unsettling discovery.

This is overall a really well-done book. It captures the delicate balance of the time well with regard to gender relations: older ideas still prevailed to a great extent, but women had the vote, were working in a growing range of occupations, and with the coming of the war, were about to have an even wider range of occupations opened to them, reinforcing trends begun during and after World War One. Gay men need to be cautious, but Oscar Wilde is in the past, and the post-war horror of the persecution of Alan Turing yet to come. The complicated nature of the conflict between England and Ireland is not explored in depth, but enough is included to make sense of some important plot elements.

And if you grant Aunt Edith the right not to properly understand the character of the young woman she raised (trying to order her home without a real explanation of why is a bad mistake), the character development is wonderful. Everyone's motivations make sense for who they are. There are no elements of idiot plot. Even the bad guys have, from their point of view, real reasons for what they do.


I borrowed this book from the library.

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