Ever since youthful Miss Bates watched black-and-white film matinées, she’s a sucker for a narrative set in WWII (also, the glorious Band Of Brothers). She watched The Guns Of Navarone sundry times, even Mrs. Miniver, which gets a nod in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, fifth in the Maggie Hope series set during WWII. MacNeal’s murder mystery is historically rich, interweaving fictional and non-fictional characters that never feel contrived. The heart of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante is the eponymous heroine, Maggie Hope, ostensibly Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secretary, actually special ops spy and code-breaker. For the most part, the novel takes place in Washington D.C. during Christmas of ’41 to New Year’s ’42. Maggie and her cohorts, David Greene and John Stirling (former RAF pilot and ex-fiancé) accompany Churchill to his meeting with President Roosevelt. For Maggie, David, and John, this is the culmination of what Churchill and they have been hoping for and planning, an alliance giving Britain the edge to defeat Nazi Germany. However, forces in the U.S. and Europe are operating against them, some of global significance and others of an equally pernicious domestic nature. Maggie is embroiled in the latter when figures, aiming to hurt the liberal president and scuttle his war efforts, frame his wife Eleanor. Blanche Balfour, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, is found dead, an apparent suicide, with a note claiming that Eleanor made amorous advances to her. Should the letter be leaked to the media, repercussions would affect Roosevelt and Churchill’s plans …
MacNeal’s narrative canvas is broad, complex, and Miss Bates loved it. MacNeal seamlessly weaves narrative threads as easily and elegantly as she does historical and made-up characters. Maggie, a marvelously capable stunner, attuned to the ethical and political implications of Mrs. Roosevelt’s situation (and carrying the burden of a complicated, unsavory family herself) makes her way in a fraught Washington D.C. Churchill’s greatness and bluster, Roosevelt’s charm and lethal intelligence mingle in a city also simmering with racial tension. Maggie’s encounter with Mrs. Roosevelt is more interesting and convoluted than at first appears. If Mrs. Roosevelt is going to be blackmailed, or publicly humiliated, the reasons are multifaceted. MacNeal weaves the story of Wendell Cotton (real-life Odel Waller), a black American share-croppper on death row. Mrs. Roosevelt’s efforts to save his life may be the motivation behind Balfour’s death and suicide note. With Harper Lee’s death just yesterday, Miss Bates was fascinated by this case of skewed justice. As a Christian opposed to the death penalty, Miss Bates read this, among the many compelling threads to MacNeal’s novel, with fascination and horror. MacNeal’s handling is convincing and gripping without resorting to pulpit-pounding. Her research is at the service of her story. Her story however, entertaining as all heck, made Miss Bates stop, ponder, consider … then, frantically turn another page.
Yet another virtuoso element to MacNeal’s novel is her adroit setting shifts. We follow Maggie, the Roosevelts, and Churchill in D.C. in two threads: the war and racial issues; the narrative also transitions to California, England, and Germany. Of the three, the one Miss Bates could’ve done without would be the California storyline. We follow Maggie’s almost-lover, ex-fiancé John, to California and his meeting with Walt Disney. This particular narrative strand felt contrived to keep Maggie and John apart (maddening!) and made Miss Bates restless and itchy. The other two narrative veins, however, were engrossing. In London, with the codebreakers and spies of MI-9, we listen in on the devious plans of several important Nazi POWs. In Germany, we get a bird’s eye view of the Nazis’ secret plans developping super-rockets. The stuff of History Channel documentaries comes alive!
Lastly, Miss Bates must speak for the wonderful Maggie Hope, who stands with the best of crime fiction’s moral-core sleuths, spies, and detectives. Maggie is driven by the need to see justice done and good triumph. At the same time, she realizes that justice comes at a price, the world does not always serve right, and her own role, and that of others she loves and supports, is coloured with moral ambiguity. When Maggie asks Churchill to speak with Roosevelt on Wendell Cotton’s behalf, Churchill tells her that Cotton must be sacrificed to help Roosevelt convince Southern powers to support his (and by extension, Churchill’s) war effort. Maggie thinks: “India, Africa, China, the colonies. All those socalled brown people. And now Wendell Cotton, too. Maggie twisted her hands in her lap, pressing them together so tight that her knuckles turned white. Now she knew how Dorothy felt when she realized the Great and Powerful Oz was really just a little man behind a curtain.” Maggie’s loses innocence with these realizations and we love her all the more for it. Maggie grieves for the world and we along with her: ” … an almost unbearable grief as she contemplated humans and the pain they inflicted on each other … She felt a deep and terrible exhaustion, at all the horrors of war.” The war at home and far away … its compromises, its realpolitik, its negotiations and how a good person navigates dangerous, necessary waters.
MacNeal’s novel is historical fiction, WWII spy thriller, and subtle romance. It is, in turn, a novel of identity. Interwoven with the narrative threads Miss Bates described above is Maggie’s complex family background and history. An Englishman and German woman’s daughter, raised by a lesbian American aunt, Maggie’s family contradictions and spy disguises took a toll on her sense of self. In this installment, Maggie makes peace with her identity in a sophisticated meditation: ” … it 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.” Thus, with a brilliant little stroke, MacNeal sets her feminist mark on her character and places her within a long line of lonely fictional spies who save and question the world the world they inhabit. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of MacNeal’s Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma, and scampers off to find Maggie Hope #1-4.
Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante is published by Bantam Books. It was released on October 27, 2015 and is available at your preferred vendors (libraries too, she hopes) in e and paper. Miss Bates is grateful to Bantam for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.