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[811] Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante – Susan Elia MacNeal


Maggie Hope’s Mystery #5

“She had returned to the United States hoping to find out where she belonged—the United States or the United Kingdom. But now I struck her that a woman without a country, without a husband, without parents, and without religion was in the perfect position to be a spy. To be on her own, not answering to anyone.” (Ch.20, 316)

The fifth installment in the series takes Maggie Hope back to her native country. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States has finally joined the war effort in December 1941. In the entourage of Winston Churchill, she returns to America, where she comes to work closely with Elanor Roosevelt after the mysterious death of the First Lady’s personal secretary, Blanche Belfour.

Within the frame of this book, the murder of Blanche’s murder takes priority over the unstable and urgent political situation at large. Whoever behind the murder is determined to incriminate Elanor Roosevelt, to discredit her, and to poison the country with a scandal in the White House on the verge of war. Maggie is quickly drawn into Eleanor’s confidence in order to track down the murderer.

Within the story were days leading up to the scheduled execution of Wendell Cotton, a black tenant accused of killing his white landlord, but out of self-defense. It’s not difficult to put two and two together as Maggie becomes more involved in advocating for the suspension of death penalty. The First Lady is a target of incrimination because of her support for minority and civil rights. Wendell comes to personify all those to whom democracy is denied. Deprived of a fair trial, he really embodies the deep-seated racial and economic injustice that poisoned the society then and now.

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a Tudor mansion where conversations are under surveillance, Clara Hess talks of German rock installation. John Sterling, the ex-RAF pilot, becomes involved in Hollywood commissioned propaganda.

The social fabric is very rich, redolent of details in the White House ministrations and the President’s own secret agent. But Maggie Hope, again, is marginalized and she is involved in no more than a murder investigation that amounts not much to a mystery. The perpetrator has been explicitly stated out front so there isn’t a mystery. In this book social commentary preponderates over Maggie’s assignment. There’s the moral question of colonization: nothing Hitler does is worse than what the Brits did to the natives of its colonies when acquiring them. And how is it that white Americans can become so incensed over the ousting and purging of Jews in Europe and yet not the ousting and purging of blacks in their homeland? Such social critique is what makes the book so engrossing.

319 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[810] The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent – Susan Elia MacNeal


Maggie Hope’s Mystery #4

“Not unless we want to be slaves, and see the rest of the world enslaved as well . . . while I will, with all my strength, defend our right to exist against a monster who would destroy everything honorable and good . . . There’s no glamour in it . . . do anything to make sure the next generation knows peace.” (Ch.23, 267)

The fourth installment finds Maggie Hope on the mend in rural Scotland after she cracked the Nazi’s Compassionate Death Program in which sickly children were sent to be euthanized in Berlin. Her mother, Clara Hess, a top Abwehr agent, is now held captive in London Tower waiting to be executed unless she divulges the secrets of the Nazi. She is in a catatonic state, reverting back to past personalities that the Nazi contrived to eradicate when training her to become a spy.

Meanwhile, in Arisaig, Scotland, Maggie Hope becomes an instructor for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). On the shore she stumbles upon a dead sheep whose skin is encrusted with black, blistering sores—symptoms of poisoning. When attending a friend’s ballet performance in Edinburgh, a ballerina crumples dead to the floor. To Maggie’s consternation, she has the same poisoning symptoms as the sheep. Two other ballerinas, one of whom is her friend, also fall gravely ill. The discretion practiced by bureaucrats alerts Maggie that Britain might be experimenting with biological weapons in preparation for the war. Somehow the murderer gets access of anthrax and uses it for personal vendetta.

This pretty much sums up the action of the book, which is a transition in the series as Britain is about to declare war on Germany. Maggie also has recovered from some personal struggle from the previous assignment. She confronts Churchill that he has used her family connections and she has doubts about continuing as an agent for the Britain. On account of this transition, I do not recommend casual reader that enters the series in the middle. The book often makes allusion to her complex history and draws on her past assignments. Although not much action takes place in this book, it provides a supple fabrics for the historical background, mainly concerning Britain’s reluctance to go to war with Germany without the United States being an ally. There is an allusion to Britain’s knowledge of the surprise attack by the Japanese, which deliberately sought to deceive the U.S. by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. Churchill, certain that the U.S. will respond to any attack with the declaration of war, ponders the moral implications of ignoring the coming crisis.

MacNeal adroitly floats between fictionalized accounts and historical re-enactments while keeping all of the action relevant. The feelings of unrest that permeated Europe in this period (circa. 1941) just before the United States entered the war are documented and add a true sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

301 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[809] His Majesty’s Hope – Susan Elia MacNeal


Maggie Hope’s Mystery #3

“There was no choice. I was lucky I was able to work for the Abwehr, not be a soldier, not kill. At the Abwehr, there are a few other like-minded people. We are doing what we can to help as many Jews escape as possible. To lay the framework for a new Germany, a non-Communist Germany, after Hitler.” (Ch.7, 106)

Margaret Hope, when working as Prime Minister Churchill’s secretary in 1940, cracked a secret code on a newspaper put in by a Nazi spy and saved not only Churchill’s life but also St. Paul’s Cathedral from destruction. These strengths along with her fluency in French and Germany landed her an assignment to protect Princess Elizabeth from a kidnapping scheme in Windsor Castle. On account of these achievements, she is initiated into Special Operations Executive, a covert organization designed to aid the British effort abroad—and her first assignment sens her to Nazi-controlled Berlin.

This isn’t about morality—it’s anout delousing. Genetic hygiene. The mercy killing of the sick, weak, and deformed is far more decent, and in truth a thousand times more humane, than to support a race of degenerates. (Ch.5, 79)

Hope is dropped into Berlin to delivered communication devices to a resistance group made up of anti-Nazi Abwehr officials and priests. Working with Lehrer, an Abwehr agent who is a spy for Britain, she is to plant a microphone in the study of a Nazi high official, who happens to be Clara Hess, Maggie’s mother. She is part of the plot to poison London’s water supply. Maggie then stumbles upon Elise, her half-sister, who is uncovering the euthanasia program of sickly and weak children with the help of an anti-Nazi Catholic priest. Elise becomes crucial in Maggie’s mission and delivers her to safety, along with Jews she is hiding in her attic.

The first half of the book is way more engaging than the second. It’s all dynamics at the beginning: the mission to infiltrate Clara Hess’s house; the planting of a bug; the stitching and knitting for coded messages. But the chaotic events ensued are less-than-convincing. They waste all the dynamics that was built up in the preparation stage of the mission. And the only “mystery” that involves poisoning London’s reservoirs is no more than an afterthought. The whole mission to Berlin doesn’t live up to its promise.

The book owes a great deal of its strength to the well-fleshed Maggie Hope, who is brave and determined but not without flaw. She is also beset by doubts. The writing is also a strong suit. It gives a well-researched look at the maneuverings of intelligence gathering efforts on both sides of the English channel.

334 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[566] Princess Elizabeth’s Spy – Susan Elia MacNeal


“You grew up in America, after all—exactly what do you know about British aristocracy?”
“Not much beyond the historical, I’m afraid,” Maggie said.
“All right, impromptu quiz—what do you say when you meet the King and Queen?”
Maggie gave David a wry look. Frain had forgotten about royal etiquette lessons. “Hello?”
David smacked himself on the head. “Oh, my dear Eliza Doolittle — we have a long night ahead of us.” (Ch.5, p.52)

This book is Maggie Hope Mystery #2, a sequel to Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. After she has discovered and broken the hidden Nazi code that points to three specific attacks in London, Maggie Hope is no longer Winston Churchill’s secretary at Number Ten. She has proven that her scientific acumen, intelligence, problem-solving skills and ability to handle dangerous situations make her a great asset to the British war effort. The beginning of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy sees Maggie entering MI-5 school for spies. Although her grades are stellar, she doesn’t do well enough on the physical tests to be sent abroad to gather intelligence for the British front.

Maggie shook her head. A decapitated Lady-in-Waiting, rabid corgis, and a man who lives with birds? ‘I thought living in a castle would be interesting, Sir Owens,’ she said, ‘but nothing—absolutely nothing—prepared me for this. . . Maggie went back into the sitting room. She stopped by the bookcase, which was empty. She squinted at it. The dust indicated books had been there for a time and had recently been removed. Now, that’s odd, she thought. Why would someone take Lily’s books? (Ch.9, p.102-3)

Instead MI-5 finds a job for her as math tutor to Princess Elizabeth, a post as an undercover, so she can keep an eye on Elizabeth, fondly known as Lilibet, who, as heir to the throne, may be a Nazi target. Soon she realizes danger is on the prowl on castle grounds when a lady-in-waiting is murdered. Her book, removed from the shelf of her quarter, is proof of connection to another murder at the Claridge’s in London. Castle life quickly proves more dangerous and her assignment, after all, is not cushy but one that involves intrigue, kidnapping, and treason. In this novel, besides the conspiracy that places the entire royal family in peril, Maggie Hope also grapples with the loss of her boyfriend and the possible truth that her father, Edmund Hope, an expert in code and cipher at Bletchley, might have been a German spy.

As Maggie needs to discern who the German agents are that have infiltrated the castle, she races against time to save England and its heir from a most disturbing fate. Although Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is not a historical fiction, more a fictional story set in the past with real characters, the book is very well-researched. The Windsor Castle, with its grandeur and staidness, is a workplace like “living in a museum—and terribly cold in winter” during the war. The King and Queen were strict about rationing, so even the princesses were limited to one egg per week, and the rest of the restrictions the British people lived through. The castle’s dungeons were used a bomb shelter where servants and the Princesses move their beds, changes of clothes, books, kitchen utensil and furniture in to keep calm and carry on. This light mystery gives one a glimpse of what it was like to live in war-time England and the story constantly keeps one on the edge using humor and red herrings.

369 pp. Bantam Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[562] Mr. Churchill’s Secretary – Susan Elia MacNeal


” As the days turned to weeks, everyone in London learned to live with it. The learned to live with the dread an the fear . . . But they could go on. They had to. They all went to work, ate their meals, spoke to one another in the shops, went on as though they were people in one of those classic British plays—always polite, terribly formal, occasionally stiff. It was almost comical sometimes. ” (Ch.13, p.149)

In May 1940, Winston Churchill just became the Prime Minister of England. Unlike his predecessor, Churchill takes on an aggressive disposition on going to war against the Nazis. It is against this historical backdrop—a strange moment in time and a limbo-like state when horror was fast approaching but barbarity had yet to descend—that MacNeal sets her novel. With the Nazis marching across France, Holland, and Belgium and threatening the island, England is also hemmed in by IRA terrorists, who have coordinated bombings in London.

Learning all the sick and twisted details of the war, Maggie was starting to hate, hate with a ferocity she never knew she had within her. Could I kill a Nazi? she thought. Before, she would have said no. Or maybe—but only if she was in a kill-or-be-killed situation. But now she felt she could do it easily, with a song in her heart if it meant getting even. (Ch.7, p.78)

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the story of Maggie Hope, a British citizen who was raised by her aunt, a lesbian academic, in America. She graduated t the top of her class at Wellesley but put off doctorate study in mathematics in order to handle a sale of her late grandmother’s house in London. Possessed all the skills of the fine minds in British intelligence, her gender however only placed her to be a secretary in Churchill’s typist room in the basement of 10 Downing. She is the replacement of a secretary who was murdered, and the truth of that dubious atrocity was in conjunction with the novel’s more intricate, underlying plot later.

Women are slowly but surely making strides—the vote, higher education, laws that protect our money and property. But this treatment of women—middle- and upper-class women—as though we’re children or goddesses or precious objets d’art—well, that’s a kind of slavery. (Ch.10, p.120)

Maggie’s past is revealed in a natural arc as the story takes on different fronts with intricate connection that is not immediately obvious. War-time England comes alive under MacNeal’s pen. Beneath the thin veneer of civility and pleasantries, in spite of the social norms of the ballets, the dancing and the theater, the nation is bracing for the worst. The IRA sees Nazi collaboration as a means for Irish freedom and retaliation. The government is aware of Maggie’s possible motive to take up work with the Prime Minister. The MI-5 has IRA and German spies under surveillance. With the impending political and military chaos, MacNeal never loses sight of her heroine, whose parents perished in a car accident shortly after she was born. As the malicious plots against London begins to unravel, enemy infiltrated, Maggie’s expertise in mathematics, language, and codes has not only proved her talent, it has also saved the life of many and in London. An innocent advert that appeared on the paper didn’t escape her keen eyes and acumen. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a compelling novel that blends intrigue and espionage as MacNeal skillfully weaves historical facts into fictional plot and the lively dialogue.

374 pp. Bantam. Trade Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]