Posts Tagged ‘Susan Elia MacNeal’


Last spring, I won an advance copy from Goodreads of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first in a historical mystery series starring whip-smart, red-headed, mathematician-turned-spy Maggie Hope. Born in England but raised by an aunt in the U.S., she returns to London as a young woman, as the rumblings of war from Hitler’s Germany grow louder and more ominous.

Maggie intends to stay in London only long enough to sell her grandmother’s house and tie up the loose ends. But, loyal to her new friends and inspired by the determination of the British people, she stays on, longing to contribute to the war effort. Before long, Maggie is working for Winston Churchill, using her intellect and wit to convince him and everyone else that she’s more than just a secretary.

I enjoyed Mr. Churchill’s Secretary – meeting Maggie and her group of friends, then getting an insider’s look at life in the War Rooms under Churchill. Maggie also makes a few vital discoveries about her own history, and the tense finale paved the way for the sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.

No longer a mere typist, Maggie goes undercover at Windsor Castle to tutor and protect Princesses Margaret and “Lilibet,” as the future Queen was then known, helping prevent a kidnapping attempt. Susan Elia MacNeal ratcheted up the plot tension, character development and quality of writing in her second book, and the setting – Christmas at Windsor Castle! – was captivating.

Maggie’s third adventure, His Majesty’s Hope (out tomorrow), is the best yet. Now fully trained as a spy, Maggie parachutes into Berlin on a mission that will bring her dangerously close to both the enemy and her own past.

Susan graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Maggie – read on to learn more about Maggie’s origins and Susan’s research travels. (As a fellow Anglophile, I am so jealous of the latter.)

How did you come up with the character of Maggie Hope?

Maggie Hope is definitely inspired by my late friend and writing mentor, the novelist Judith Merkle Riley. She was, like Maggie, brilliant — and, also like Maggie, combated more than her share of sexism as she worked in academia in the ’60s and ’70s. Judith was an amazing person, and Maggie has her intelligence, her warmth, her sense of humor — as well as her impatience with red tape and bureaucracy.

Maggie’s name, Margaret, was a nod to Judith’s character Margaret of Ashbury, in her first novel, Vision of Light. Maggie Hope’s hair is red because Margaret’s hair was red — Judith based Margaret physically on her daughter, who’s a redhead (and is still a very good friend of mine!).

I chose the name “Hope” because of an actual conversation Winston Churchill had with one of his real wartime secretaries, Marian Holmes. When they met, he thought she said her last name was Hope — and was actually disappointed that it wasn’t. (Although he went on to call Miss Holmes “Miss Sherlock.”) I thought it was intriguing that Mr. Churchill really wanted a secretary with the surname “Hope.”

What drew you to write about World War II in Britain?

I was very lucky to be able to accompany my husband, puppeteer Noel MacNeal, on a business trip to London. I remember we went out to a pub with some British friends, and one handed me the latest Time Out London and said, “You might want to take a look at the Cabinet War Rooms — despite what you Yanks may think, World War II didn’t start on December 7, 1941.”

So I decided to have a look the next day, and had a completely transformative experience. The museum is in the actual underground bunker where Churchill and his staff ran the war during the Blitz, and there are many places where you can do a complete turn and see it just as it must have been during the war. For a moment I really did feel like time had telescoped in on itself, and I’d somehow been transported to the war rooms of 1940. And I knew I wanted to write about it.

Have you been able to visit the places depicted in your books – Bletchley Park, the “finishing school” for spies in Scotland, etc.? If so, what was that like?

Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel to many of the places I’ve written about. It’s always thrilling to me. I usually travel alone (or at least do my research alone) and I feel like my characters come with me!

For His Majesty’s Hope, I went to Berlin and a good friend of mine, who’s also a working mom, came with me. So much of the research was disturbing, I was grateful to have someone to have dinner with and laugh with at the end of the day.

What made you decide to take Maggie to Berlin (and behind enemy lines) in this third book?

Well, Maggie has paid her dues, both psychologically and physically. She’s now exactly the kind of spy the SOE would have wanted to send behind enemy lines. She’s certainly come a long way since she started out as Mr. Churchill’s secretary!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I love vintage perfumes and have been known to track them down on eBay. It’s like time travel in a bottle. Even though it doesn’t necessarily make it into the book, I know what perfume or cologne each character wears (or doesn’t wear).

Can you tell us a bit about Maggie’s upcoming fourth adventure?

Yes! In The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, we follow Maggie to Scotland, where she’s become an instructor at one of the spy training camps, and is trying to make sense of her experiences in Berlin. And, of course, she’s pulled into a mystery. Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan are eroding and the Japanese plan their attack on Pearl Harbor, using spies (one German, one Japanese) on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The ultimate attack on the U.S., and the U.S. finally entering World War II, will have profound reverberations for Maggie.

Thank you so much for having me as a guest!

Thanks, Susan! Be sure to check out His Majesty’s Hope and Maggie’s other adventures.

*I received an advance reading copy of His Majesty’s Hope, but was not compensated for this review or interview.

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