Monday, April 9, 2012

A Cautionary Tale in How to Write Historical

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill's Secretary

Historical fiction writers have to walk a fine line: how much detail is too much? Historical mystery writers have double that problem. After all, history is about sharing detail, while mystery relies on withholding detail until just the right moment. Authors can find it easy to share too little, keeping audiences confused, or hitting readers with a firehose of undifferentiated information. Sadly, in her debut novel, Susan Elia MacNeal chooses the latter option.

British born but American raised, Maggie Hope only intended to stay in London long enough to sell her late grandmother’s house. But the outbreak of World War II reawakens her “King and Country” sentiments. She joins the staff at 10 Downing Street, only to find that her old family secrets are less than secret in the halls of power. As war moves from possibility to reality, she becomes enmeshed in the inner workings of a country she still hardly knows.

Halfway through this book, one member of Maggie’s inner circle accuses another of a years-old rape. These two have sat to dinner together, carried on political conversations, and attended parties, without a hint of animosity. Neither character gives any hint of a prior history until two pages before the secret comes spilling out. This revelation occurs, I suspect, simply because the author thinks thinks we need one at this juncture.

Understand, please: this happens at the midpoint of a putative mystery, though no detection takes place. Despite a teaser intro about the murder of a member of Winston Churchill’s typing pool, the death occupies less than five of the subsequent 170 pages. A secondary plot about the IRA, Nazi sympathizers, and fifth columnists feels tacked on from another, possibly better book. The author’s attempts to sandwich in some red herrings are painfully obvious.

Instead, MacNeal barrages us with hundreds of pages of historical detail. This includes windy street scenes, descriptions of London before and during the Blitz, the privations of living in Britain on the brink of war, romances that begin and end with precious little detail, and extended soirees and assorted nightlife vignettes. While a few such scenes might have made interesting background, they swell to occupy numerous, interminable chapters. I could have read this in any war memoir.

Between these scenes, MacNeal continues to bury us. Several pages brim with transcripts of Churchill’s speeches to Commons, larded out with many authorial insertions about the characters’ emotional responses. In other places, characters have long, windy conversations about then-current affairs. Partway through one such discussion, which ran over ten pages, I realized the characters weren’t really talking to each other; they were explaining the history to me.

Then, while flooding us with so many external details, MacNeal withholds personal detail. One major part of this story deals with Maggie Hope’s elusive father, whom she believes dead. So many characters state so many times that she must not discover the truth, that I think I break no confidences to say that Maggie discovers he did not die when she thought, and everything she believed about him is false. MacNeal practically signals this fact with jazz hands.

Sometimes I praise books for their “cinematic quality.” Usually I mean that details are well realized, and the author communicates important points in actions rather than telling us what to think. I don’t mean a compliment this time, though. Scenes consistently break on cliffhangers, and so many chapters end with sudden revelations that readers can practically hear the cheesy organ music. This doesn’t read like a book so much as a treatment for an unproduced movie.

Prior to this novel, MacNeal’s greatest literary triumph was a book of recipes for mixed drinks. For some reason, she has chosen to move from the world of how-to, in which everything must be spelled out as explicitly as possible, to the world of literature, in which authors must make choices. Unfortunately, she still writes like every thought, image, and detail which occurs to her deserves a place on the page.

An author like Charles Todd uses history as milieu for an active story. For MacNeal, history is the story. Todd gives enough historic context to keep readers engaged, and focused on the characters. MacNeal uses the characters as authorial sock puppets to explain the history, and never quite gets around to her own story. I blush to admit, after the unearned midpoint revelation, I put this book down, and now can’t bring myself to pick it up again. And I see no reason I should.

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