Immediately upon learning that Jacqueline Winspear had published a new novel, I reserved it on the public library website and eagerly awaited my turn. Consistent with expectations based on previous experiences, “The American Agent,” no. 15 in the Maisie Dobbs detective series, was moving, informative and entertaining.
The first book, appropriately titled, “Maisie Dobbs,” came out in 2003 and was a New York Times Notable Book. It won prestigious mystery and detective fiction Agatha, Alex and Macavity awards and was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The author, a native of Kent, England, and University of London alumna who now lives in California, released each new title within a year or two of its predecessor.
The series began in post–World War I London where Dobbs returns after serving as a nurse on the front lines to work with her mentor, an accomplished detective who had recognized and encouraged her singular investigative abilities; upon his retirement, she opens her own agency. Subsequent books focus on her multilayered cases, often related to World War I and II, and her interactions with her beloved staff, family and best friend as well as her romances with a few good men.
The new book is set in 1940, the start of the period of intense Luftwaffe bombing on London known as the “Blitz.” On behalf of the U.K.’s Scotland Yard and Secret Service, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, Maisie is enlisted to solve the murder of Catherine Saxon, an American correspondent she had met only a day earlier. The young journalist had been reporting on the war, aspiring to “be in the game,” that is, to join the ranks of the (real-life) prominent broadcast journalist and war correspondent Edward R. Murrow. During Maisie’s investigation, it becomes clear that the murder has links to the U.K.’s efforts to persuade the U.S. to join in the war and the perpetrators of American isolationist propaganda.
While I was familiar with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as paterfamilias of the high-profile Kennedy clan, I knew little about his career. Winspear introduces him into the novel as the subject of a special agent’s investigation. Kennedy served as the U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1938 to late 1940, when he resigned amid controversy about his leanings. Apparently, Winspear said in her Author’s Note, the senior Kennedy was an isolationist with Nazi sympathies who supported appeasement, predicted Hitler would be in Buckingham Palace within two weeks of the declaration of war, spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric and had business relationships in Germany. Coincidentally, the author said that while writing the book, she read news of the declassification of reports filed by an unnamed agent who was sent to London to monitor Kennedy’s activities.
A third-person narrator tells the story, interspersing period- and location-appropriate dialogue with narrative that depicts characters in meticulous detail. Maisie’s observations of attire, facial features and expressions, even bearing and posture, factor into how she uses these clues to determine motivations and guide her own behavior. One character, for example, has his “legs crossed in an easy manner, arms on the arms of the chair, hands not clenched, but at rest. His charcoal gray suit was well cut and his shoes expensive. His tie indicated he had studied at Cambridge, and his shirt was starched.” In another case, “Maisie judged Tucker’s position and leaned forward knowing that in so doing she had moved into an area that he considered his domain simply by dint of his posture.”
In all the novels, Maisie is also negotiating her personal losses—most often war-related—and feelings of trust and love as friend, daughter, lover and here, as mother.
Certainly, readers can start with almost any of the 15 Maisie Dobbs as a stand-alone history-mystery-romance novel. The author does include the most important details of Maisie’s history in each book. Still, I think there is much to be gained from starting at the beginning—and getting a feeling for the characters’ evolution—what Winspear has described as “how they came to think, feel and act as they do.”