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The Secretary


The Secretary

THE SECRETARY is the second book I have read in as many weeks that seeks to plow new ground in the thriller genre. Renée Knight’s sophomore effort more than fulfills the promise of her critically acclaimed debut, DISCLAIMER. Those who flocked to her first novel will find much to love here, as will a host of readers new to her work.

The bedrock premise of THE SECRETARY is fairly straightforward. Christine Butcher, the first-person present narrator, has much to tell but is in no particular hurry to reveal all. She drops little hints here and there in the form of breadcrumbs that are enigmatic and foreboding, creating a grim and uncertain atmosphere throughout the entire story.

"Part of the fun of reading the book is finding out who wins. The answer ultimately is The Reader."

Christine’s narrative of what has gone before begins approximately 20 years in the book’s past, when she applies for and is hired to be Mina Appleton's secretary (what we now call an “administrative” or “personal” assistant, terms for which Christine does not care). Mina is more than an executive with the family-owned Appleton Supermarket chain, a growing company that presents itself as a kind of Whole Foods, small-sourced and dedicated to treating its small farm suppliers and socially conscious shoppers fairly. She is also the face of the company, and as a result is a celebrity who has her own television show that functions, however intentionally or unintentionally, as a commercial for the chain.

Mina has another side, though. As THE SECRETARY begins, she is in the process of easing out her father, the ailing founder of the company, and instituting her own practices of dealing with suppliers. They are not, if you will, as enlightened as her father’s. To do what she is doing, she needs and prizes the loyalty and discretion of those around her, particularly the newly hired Christine. Mina relies heavily on Christine for everything from scheduling meetings and picking up dry cleaning to making sure that documents that might be embarrassing to the company somehow go away.

Christine does it all without complaint, even as she leaves bits and pieces of her life --- her husband, daughter and friends --- behind her. She freely gives her own loyalty because she knows she is needed and is sure that, when the chips are down, Mina will be loyal to her in return. The problem is that as we read the book, it is easy to get the sense that while Mina is as cold as can be, Christine may not be wrapped too tight, either. There are some twists and turns throughout the story, but Knight, through her unsettled protagonist, saves the biggest one for the very end. It’s a conclusion that you probably will want to read a few times, just to make sure you got it right the first time. You did.

THE SECRETARY, like DISCLAIMER, seems to have been written with a cinematic presentation in mind. Indeed, it all but blocks out each and every scene, unreeling page by page in a frame-by-frame sequence. The prize here, of course, is Christine, whose occasional cluelessness is as chilling as Mina’s single-mindedness. Part of the fun of reading the book is finding out who wins. The answer ultimately is The Reader.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 8, 2019

The Secretary
by Renée Knight