Mr. Churchill's Secretary is the first in a new series by a debuting author. The time, 1940. The place, London. War was declared in 1939, but there was a lull (sometimes called the Phony War) before intense air battles began. Churchill has just become Prime Minister when this novel opens, on May 12, 1940. Women are stepping forward to help in the war office by becoming office staff and other key positions in London.
Delightful, liberated (for her time) and loyal, Maggie Hope joins the staff as one of Churchill’s secretaries. At this time, the key role as Personal Secretary was always held by a man, college-educated and rigid with the upstanding British backbone. English by birth (and passport) yet American by upbringing, Maggie has inherited the home of a deceased relative, leaving her aunt back in the States while she cleans the house and prepares for the sale of the building and its contents. But war gets in the way, and Maggie decides to stay in England and support the war effort. Her aunt is less than pleased—indeed rather alarmed—but the cause for her concerns unfolds slowly against the background of the war.
Maggie prepares her inherited house for occupation and takes on a group of women tenants—mostly fellow office workers, although there is a ballerina and her cohorts, too. These women, released from the normal societal expectations of them by the advent of the Second World War, are friends as well as roommates. As the story unfolds, we come to know each woman and her foibles. We are also introduced to the men who have vital roles in the plot: boyfriends, co-workers, and of course, Mr. Churchill himself.
As the author states, “[Mr. Churchill's Secretary] is not a history, nor is it meant to be. It is a blend of fact and fiction, of characters and events, both real and imagined.” Yet the story pulls the reader in, and both the plot and subplots are intriguing and enticing. What is it about Maggie’s past that is being kept a secret? What really happened when her parents died in England in a car crash? Why is Churchill’s male staff so determined not to take advantage of Maggie superior mathematical and cryptology skills?
Some of the most interesting aspects of WWII are featured here: Bletchley Park, the first computerized center for code-breaking; Trinity College, where college professors are being plucked from obscurity to help; and the fog-ridden streets of London herself, obscure and mysterious. There are elements of which to beware—the IRA has a spy ring determined to bring self-rule to Ireland, there is an attempted assassination of Churchill himself, and finally an opportunity for Maggie to prove her skills, once and for all.
A highly enjoyable story, with quick-witted characters and a true flavor of wartime London. The next book in the series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, is due out later this year. Get on the bandwagon as soon as you can, this series is going to be a hit!