Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
Churchill in Fiction
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal. Hardbound, 384 pages, $15, members $12, Kindle edition $9.99. Portrayal: ★ Worth Reading ★. Hitler’s Peace by Philip Kerr. Softbound 464 pages, $15, Kindle edition $12.99. Portrayal: ★ Worth Reading ★.
By Michael McMenamin
Mr. McMenamin is co-author with his son Patrick of the Churchill thrillers, The DeValera Deception, The Parsifal Pursuit and The Gemini Agenda. He also compiles FH’s “Action This Day” department. Novels are rated one to three stars on two questions: Is the portrayal of WSC accurate? and, Is the book worth reading?
I am generally reluctant to award three stars in novel reviews, but both these mystery thrillers set in World War II, featuring Churchill as a fictional character, deserve it. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is set in May 1940, after Churchill became Prime Minister, and involves the murder of one of the Prime Minister’s young typists. We begin with Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech, which creates an opening for the heroine, Maggie Hope, a Briton stuck with “an atrocious [American] accent,” who has put off a mathematics degree at MIT to sell her late grandmother’s Victorian house in London. The house doesn’t sell, but when war is declared she patriotically decides to stay, rent rooms to other young women, and support herself by tutoring. A friend, one of Churchill’s private secretaries, persuades her to apply for the now-vacant secretarial position. She is soon caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate Churchill, featuring IRA and Nazi sleeper agents, Bletchley Park and coded Nazi messages embedded in newspaper adverts.
In a historical note, MacNeal tells us that the adverts were actually published, and that WSC himself had a hand in naming her heroine: One of his wartime secretaries was Marian Holmes, who recalled that Churchill once mistakenly called her “Hope.” MacNeal in turn has her fictional Churchill mistakenly call Miss Hope “Holmes.”
Churchill appears in many scenes and dictates several speeches including “Never Surrender.” His fictional portrayal is as good as I have ever read. We see him angry, brow-beating and benevolent, often in the same scene. The sense of fun surfaces when he is told her name: “We need some hope in this office,” he mutters…. “You may stay…”
MacNeal’s treatment of the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret is delightful; her fiendish Nazi plot is gripping; and our Maggie has another secret to learn about herself that everyone else from Churchill down knows, but she doesn’t. The author’s wartime London is as evocative as her Winston Churchill portrayal. So three stars for a great, fast-paced story, and three more for an excellent take on the great man.
Philip Kerr is the author of the “Bernie Gunther” novels, about an anti-Nazi homicide detective in prewar Germany. But Hitler’s Peace is a stand-alone thriller about an SS plot to assassinate Churchill, FDR and Stalin, set in the weeks before their conference at Teheran in late November 1943.
Kerr grabs our attention with a series of actual events: “Operation Long Jump,” an SS plot to air-drop 100 German assassins into Iran; the allied investigation of the Russian massacre of 4000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest; and the secret peace feelers between the Germans and Russians in 1943.
The protagonist is a Princeton philosophy professor who analyzes German intelligence for the OSS, assigned to look into the Katyn massacre and determine if German claims of Soviet complicity are true. His quest takes him to Washington, London, Cairo and Teheran with the President, on board USS Iowa. The plot is intricate, involving multiple characters from all sides in impressive speaking roles: Roosevelt, von Ribbentrop, Himmler, Schellenberg, Milch, Heydrich’s widow Lina, Kim Philby, Hitler, Canaris, Hopkins, Bormann, Beria, Stalin and Churchill. And these appearances are not cameos: all figure in the plots afoot.
Kerr, a British author, can be forgiven for one false note, on a Roosevelt martini, described by the Princeton professor: “It had way too much gin for my taste, and it was not too cold if you like drinking liquid hydrogen.” To the contrary, FDR used copious amounts of vermouth (one part to two parts gin), according to the Roosevelt Library and National Archives—the classic recipe, not at all extraordinary in 1943, even for a Princeton professor.
This is a fine thriller, easily worth three stars, though Churchill’s role is small. While he is referred to throughout, he has no speaking role until the Teheran meeting commences. Kerr’s portrayal of Churchill deserves three stars because it accurately portrays what Churchill’s reaction would have been under the circumstances posed by the novel. Compared to FDR and Stalin, not to mention Hitler, Churchill has all the choice lines. He comes off well by comparison.
Like MacLean, Kerr offers a historical note, describing the events which actually happened. One which surprised me, and won’t spoil the plot for you, is that in mid-Atlantic, on the way to the Tehran conference, a destroyer in the president’s convoy, USS Willie D. Porter, mistakenly fired a torpedo at USS Iowa, the battleship carrying the Presidential party! Iowa had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid being hit.