“A cool, contemporary, whip-smart thriller.” — —Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train
She could be the most dangerous person in the room...
From her first day as Personal Assistant to the celebrated Mina Appleton, Christine Butcher understands what is expected of her. Absolute loyalty. Absolute discretion. For twenty years, Christine has been a most devoted servant, a silent witness to everything in Mina’s life. So quiet, you would hardly know she is there.
Day after day, year after year, Christine has been there, invisible—watching, listening, absorbing all the secrets floating around her. Keeping them safe.
Christine is trusted. But those years of loyalty and discretion come with a high price. And eventually Christine will pay.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate such a steadfast woman as Christine. Because as everyone is about to discover, there’s a dangerous line between obedience and obsession.
From the Author:
I was a secretary for a number of years, way back, when I first started work. I took down shorthand, typed letters, answered phones, made teas and coffees. Was I ever the most dangerous person in the room? I doubt it. The most irritated perhaps, sometimes the most bored, occasionally a little resentful. 'Fetch me the Financial Times. It's the pink newspaper,' a male reporter at the BBC once drawled in my direction, assuming my ignorance. I bit my tongue. I worked in a variety of places as a temp, each with their own idiosyncrasies. A tiny fashion consultancy, with workplace rules that made me feel as if I'd been packed off to a girls' private boarding school. A novelty at first. The, now redundant, BBC Engineering Information Department, where I took dictation from a room full of male engineers answering letters from members of the public complaining about crackles and blips on their TV sets. I stayed at the BBC, moving through different departments, until I was fortunate to be assigned to the post of Joan Bakewell's secretary. I was happy to make tea or coffee for Joan. More than happy to answer her phone, take messages, type up her letters. She was, and is, a woman to be admired - a woman who treated me with consideration and kindness. Would I have lied for her? Probably. In a court of law? Maybe not. Shielded her from unwanted intrusion? Yes, if she needed it. Kept her secrets? Yes to that too, if she had confided in me, which she didn't. In the end I was with Joan for less than a year, my eyes on the prize of being a television researcher. I had nothing like the dedication of Christine Butcher in The Secretary. Christine Butcher - a woman born to serve. Christine Butcher who devotes nearly twenty years of her life as Personal Assistant to the charismatic Mina Appleton. A woman she admires. A woman for whom, it seems, she would do anything.
What interested me about that character, and made me want to scratch around in her life, was the question of loyalty and its limits. How far would someone go in the name of duty? Over the years there have been a number of high profile cases, both here and in America, where secretaries have stood up in court, called on to bear witness for their employer. With the help of a diary, a note sent, an alibi supported or refuted, a secretary can bring down or save their employer. I was intrigued, in particular, by the details that emerged of the relationships between the rich and powerful and their most intimate staff. It seemed, quite often, the lines became blurred - assistants treated like friends, given open access to the privileges and private lives of their employers. As if they were equals. At least, on the surface. Perhaps women employers fall into this more frequently - men, on the whole, unapologetic in positions of authority. By scuffing over the line between employer and employee, those with power are able to assume a more benign appearance of humility. As Christine Butcher says when she is invited to Mina Appleton's home for the first time: domesticity can be a marvelous disguise. It can be seductive to be invited into the inner sanctum.
It struck me that, in the past, there was more clarity - a distinct line between those who serve and their masters and mistresses - and with that, perhaps greater honesty in the transaction. Those who hold power need people around them who are willing do their bidding. They seek out those who can be groomed to fit the part. A secretary, an assistant, perhaps more than anyone else, must fit themselves around their boss's needs. It is not a relationship of equals, and when that is forgotten, things can get messy. It's that messiness that interests me.
Disclaimer, my first book, was situated in the delicate eco-system of the home - a place where ignorance can be bliss, and the unearthing of buried secrets cause devastation. In writing The Secretary, I discovered the realm of the workplace is not so different to a family home. Just as the noir exists in the domestic, so too the gothic can be unearthed in the office. In the domain of desks, swivel chairs and vertical blinds, an office may appear a benign
place, and yet peel back a carpet tile, and it's surprising the number of secrets found there. Take the lift up to the top floor, to the hush of the executive suite, and there you will find the gatekeeper, the PA, the Executive Assistant, the person who guards this precious domain from unwanted intrusion. The origin of the word secretary itself, is: 'one entrusted with the secrets and confidences of a superior'. A secretary then, is a subordinate, an inferior, one whose identity is defined by the needs of their superior. And yet, she is not without influence. After all, it is she who is the trusted one. The silent witness. A secretary may do as she's told and bite her tongue, but in the end, secrets are power. Not surprising then, that the one entrusted to keep them, may well turn out to be the most dangerous person in the room.