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Sleuth at 10 Downing Street; Buffalo native sees a dream come true with publication of 'Mr. Churchill's Secretary,' the first book in her WWII-era detective series

Susan Elia MacNeal can point to a few early moments in her Western New York childhood when there may have been a sign -- the slightest hint -- that she would turn into an adult who makes her living with words.

One was the joy she took from the books that librarians at the North Tonawanda public library gave her to read. Novels such as "Jane Eyre," "Great Expectations" and "Mrs. Miniver" made great impressions.

The second clue was the excitement she found in English and history classes at Nardin Academy, her alma mater.

Now, Elia MacNeal, who at 43 is about to publish the first novel in what has become a contracted four-book series about a World War II-era mathematician and sleuth, says her early interests are a vital link to the writer she has become.

For instance: Elia MacNeal credits being from Buffalo for the thick skin that helped her endure more than 50 rejections before the novel was signed by Random House.

"That's something about being a Buffalonian," said Elia MacNeal, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Noel MacNeal, a television performer, and their 7-year-old son, Matthew. "You're always struggling with the weather, you're always struggling with sports teams that don't come through. I think the fact that I am from Buffalo has a lot to do with why I persevered [as a writer]."

Elia MacNeal's first novel, "Mr. Churchill's Secretary," will be released Tuesday as a Bantam paperback. It is the story of Maggie Hope, a British woman who spent some of her childhood in the United States and who returns to London just before World War II.

In the debut novel, Maggie, a red-headed mathematics whiz who is a Wellesley grad (like Elia MacNeal herself) and tends to the brainy and bookish, finds answers to puzzling situations while working as a secretary -- at first, just a typist -- for Winston Churchill, at No. 10 Downing Street.

Maggie Hope is partly based on real-life English typists, secretaries and code-breakers that Elia MacNeal learned about while in England with her husband, who was working there. In 2000, she toured the underground Cabinet War Rooms, which are open to visitors in London, and got a tantalizing glimpse of the world that such women civil servants worked in during the war with Nazi Germany.

Elia MacNeal said her novel's inspiration came to her while visiting the Churchill-related offices -- Britain's wartime nerve center.

"I went on an off day, I think it was a Tuesday, and I was pretty much alone in there," said Elia MacNeal, whose parents still live in North Tonawanda.

"I was walking along these concrete corridors they were bomb-proof. And it's all been left exactly as it was [in 1945]. There are push-pins in the maps, where they were left. I had this chill. Time kind of collapsed on itself. I could really feel what it was like, to be there."

Elia MacNeal began researching the 1940s and the history of World War II in Britain, both overseas and in the New York Public Library. She read vintage magazines, memoirs and historical accounts -- and even corresponded with a woman in South Africa who as a young woman was one of Churchill's typists. (As Elia MacNeal describes in her book, typists for Churchill used special silent typewriters because he liked them to transcribe his letters and other missives while he dictated.)

"I just felt such a bond with these women that were there, working, with who knows what going on overhead," she said. "I feel that those women -- the people who worked on the homefront -- they are sort of the unsung heroes.

"And women, especially. Women came out of their homes -- and did so much. It struck some chord in me."

The first book is set explicitly in 1940, in London, and in No. 10 Downing Street. In the text, references to the songs, movie stars, perfumes ("Joy" and "Shalimar," for instance) and clothiers of the day are woven into the storyline, which features appearances by Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Joseph Kennedy and other historical figures.

"1940s London, I really knew nothing about it," said Elia MacNeal. "So I had to make sure I had every detail correct because you had better know your stuff."

Elia MacNeal, who comes home to Buffalo to visit about once a year, said she is thrilled her initial book has been picked up as a series, and she hopes to keep Maggie Hope's story going.

"I felt so free," she said of landing the series. "I felt like I had finally been justified in this crazy dream. Writing is what I love to do."

In the second book, Maggie Hope -- who will be the character that holds the series together -- becomes involved with the Windsor family (Britain's royals). In the third, she travels to Berlin.

And, somewhere along the way, Elia MacNeal said, she plans to include a character from Buffalo, as a nod to the city in which she grew up.

"I feel very connected to Buffalo still," she said. "There are no shout-outs to Buffalo yet. But I am bound and determined. I think that will be such a nice thing."

Email: cvogel@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

Mr. Churchhill's Secretary

By Susan Elia MacNeal

Bantam

384 pages; $15