This is the latest novel to feature London-based investigator Maisie Dobbs. One of a long established series, you can expect not just Maisie herself, but a cast of her regular characters – her family, employees, friends and police oldie Robbie MacFarlane of the “Met”. Having read a cluster of the previous novels, but not kept up to date, two people new to me will be Anna – a daughter that Maisie plans to adopt – and Mark Scott, previous almost love interest, who is the “American Agent”. The year is now 1940 and it is the autumn of the Blitz. Britain (and empire) is standing alone, the Germans are trying to bomb Britain into submission before invading and the USA is still to enter the war. A difficult time for all Londoners and those elsewhere.
Maisie is asked by the police to quietly investigate the death – in conjunction with Mark Scott – of young, but rising, American journalist Catherine Saxon. Without saying too much to give away any key plotlines, it turns out that she is the daughter of a powerful anti-war senator but is nonetheless building a career in journalism covering complex political and international issues – the Civil War in Spain, the fall of France, the war, all in opposition to the men of her family.
Maisie, working as an auxiliary ambulance and rescue worker with friend Priscilla, will be asked to take her out on an “operation” in the Blitz. Within 24 hours she will be found dead and Maisie will be asked to quietly investigate. She needs to check her home in lodgings, the other women she met there, those she encountered as part of her work and her back life in France and Spain. The enigmatic Mark Scott is supposedly helping.
The writing and procedure are, of course, assured. The plot is suitably complex and the murder not unravelled too early. But…. all the Winspear novels have an historic setting. This one is set at a particularly critical time for the British people. Subject to war, death and random violence they nevertheless have to carry on with their lives, supporting their families, friends and communities. So whether this novel succeeds will depend on whether you feel that Winspear has balanced the crime investigation with the personal issues depicted through the characters and with the greater political realities of life then.
It needs to be remembered that Winspear is an American writer writing (in part) for an American audience, with a different perspective. And yes, time has passed and most readers will never have experienced those years directly, only through family memories and experiences coupled with what they have been told or seen since.
My personal view is that is the weakest Winspear novel I have read. Largely because it was over-ambitious in its range. To my mind she just could not integrate so much information, experiences, pain and difficulties within a single novel, particularly when her format is using a suite of interlocking characters. “Conversations” between them used to highlight issues or emotions and fears became unlikely, clunky even. Which was disappointing because what she was recounting is increasingly “lost” (sometimes secret) history that it is important to know. It was not a given that Britain would win the war or that the USA would come in. Some young people had to grow up very fast. And yes lots of people were maimed, or died, or left orphaned. It was a very long and expensive six years.
However, remember that I am interested in history and my family were Londoners living through these times, so you might on reflection regard me as over-picky. The murder plotline ran smoothly, historical discrepancies were not too obvious and initially it was not easy to predict the murderer. If the story is the most important thing read on and enjoy.
Hilary White 3/4
The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear
Allison & Busby 9780749024604 hbk Mar 2019