Book Review: “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” by Susan Elia MacNeal

What is this? A book review? In my book blog?! How dare you!

Oh, wait. That’s the whole reason this blog was created in the first place.

This week’s book is Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal. I picked it up on a whim at Barnes & Noble a few months ago (I think I’ve got a pattern going here), read a few pages, and gave up. After finding three more of the books at 2nd & Charles a few weeks ago, I decided I needed to go ahead and start reading the series.

From GoodReads:

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

In this daring debut, Susan Elia MacNeal blends meticulous research on the era, psychological insight into Winston Churchill, and the creation of a riveting main character,  Maggie Hope, into a spectacularly crafted novel.

I’ve always had a fascination with novels set in the 1940s. Maybe that makes me a little morbid, but I love the backdrop of World War II. However, I feel like this novel could really be set at any time in the first half the 20th century — you could put Maggie Hope in the 1950s, for example, and have her fight the Communists from Russia, and I don’t think many things would be lost.

I think I am definitely going to label this book series as a “popcorn series,” and let me tell you what I mean by that. I mean it’s nothing super deep. I’ve finished two of these books in a day before, and came away with the feeling that I didn’t gather much from the books. There’s nothing life-shattering contained in these novels; they simply are. I think Steven’s mom calls them “Cozy Mysteries,” in that they’re fun to read but don’t expect a lot of substance to come out of them.

I mean, I’ve already ordered the next two in the series (meaning I’ll have a total of six of the Maggie Hope books by the end of this week), and there are two more to collect after that. I think they’re fun to read, and I think I’ll like to re-read them at some point in time (or pass them off to my mom), but I’m not expecting some big explosive life-changing thing to come out of them.

I think my biggest issue with this series is Maggie Hope herself. She’s an outspoken feminist in 1940 London. I’m a feminist myself, but Maggie puts every single slight down to the fact that she’s a woman, and constantly has it out for the men in her life. She degrades her superiors at 10 Downing Street, she believes that everyone hates her because she’s female, and it’s just all-around nerve-wracking. We frequently get to witness Maggie getting up on her soapbox to tell us something that we all already know: the 1940s was an incredibly sexist time. However, the author also undermines her “strong feminist” character by constantly describing other women as “shrill” and “hysterical,” and having Maggie’s eyes “fill with hot tears” whenever she gets upset, which is often. The female villain is overpowered easily because she “can’t do it” when she is called upon to act.

My second major issue is that everything constantly falls directly into place for Maggie. She needs a job? Conveniently, a new typist spot just opened up at No. 10. She finds out that someone faked their death? Conveniently, she now has connections to look into that. (Also, everyone is constantly talking behind her back and asking “Does she know?” – which, to me, completely takes away all of the suspense of that particular twist.)

There are twists, and I will say that a few of them surprised me, but the vast majority could be seen coming from miles away. The ones that surprised me might have to do with the fact that I was reading this book so fast because there isn’t any real substance to this book at all.

Do I think it’s a bad book? No. Is it a good book? Also no. I think it’s solidly straddling that middle line. If you’re a fan of cozy mysteries that don’t really have to make sense (seriously, Maggie’s aunt is a lesbian and one of her best friends is gay — and everyone who knows this just accepts this, despite this being in the 1940s where homosexuality is still thought of as a rampant disease that needs to be eradicated), especially ones where everything just falls into place for the main character with no real effort on her own part, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re looking for something that actually makes you think and that would genuinely surprise you, this isn’t the book series for you.

Will I keep this book series when I’m done with it? Probably not. Should I have attempted to find it in a library somewhere first? Probably, but none of the libraries I have access to have them, and it’s not like I’m buying these full-price.

In short, I think I’ll give this series a solid 3/5 stars. It’s nothing special (if you’ve read one poorly-written WWII mystery novel you’ve read them all), but I will say it’s fun to read them just to watch out absolutely outrageous the author gets in the third and fourth books. (Spoiler alert: Maggie goes from a typist in Churchill’s office to a spy being dropped behind enemy lines in less than a year!) At this point, I’m just reading them to see how she could possibly wrap this series up.

Have you read the Maggie Hope series? What were your thoughts? What do you think about “popcorn novels” (or, as Mrs. Ford puts it, “Cozy Mysteries”) in general? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, keep reading.

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