The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear – An excellent Maisie Dobbs novel
The name Maisie Dobbs is well known to many who love well constructed, powerful fictional women detectives. A series which begins before the First World War with the story of a young girl who finds a unique mentor and several benefactors has developed into a story of a determined older woman who has had many traumatic experiences. Winspear has produced twelve books which carefully document a woman’s life up to this point, but the really good thing is that this book can be read as a complete standalone novel. This is also a novel set in September 1940 in a London undergoing the blitz, and it conveys a wealth of experience of the uncertainty of life. This is the London of Edward Murrow making broadcasts to America subtly urging them to join in another War by detailing how the people of Britain were coping, standing alone in the face of a force which had invaded much of the rest of Europe. Amid destruction and unexpected death as a result of enemy action, there is another question surrounding the murder of a young woman, and it is this death that Maisie must investigate. I had been really looking forward to reading this novel, and I was delighted when I was asked to contribute a review to a blog tour.
The book opens with the text of a broadcast made by a young American woman, Catherine Saxon, on the basis of a night spent in an ambulance driven and operated by Maisie and her long time friend, Mrs Priscilla Partridge. This is a realistic account of an experience which would test the most battle hardened as the casualties of war are not the men which the two women had nursed in the First War, but women and children in their own homes. Catherine’s report is brave, truthful and reveals a talent for reporting honed in the battlegrounds of Spain. When Catherine’s death is discovered, Maisie is requested to investigate, together with the mysterious American Mark Scott who she has met before in challenging circumstances. Maisie is also concerned about the welfare of a girl which she is proposing to adopt, if survival is possible in a world where no one is safe, even in the depths of the country. As always, she adopts a meticulous method of discovering all she can about the young American girl with a troubled past and an exceptional ambition. The other women who live in the house emerge as very definite characters, and Winspear spares no detail of other characters who are depicted. Even those characters who do not appear in the flesh are faithfully described and given real personalities. When a crisis occurs and someone very close to her is placed in danger, Maisie must show a near superhuman bravery and composure in order to get through, and make sure those around her can carry on.
This is an admirable book which captures something of the time and experience of London in the early days of intense bombing. Winspear manages to convey something of the uncertainty of a Britain standing alone, fearing invasion, hoping for America and other allies to help, but aware that there is real fear of another long battle. Maisie is as always an impressive creation of compassion, intelligence and determination to do the right thing, even if not conventional. While this is a meticulously written book, the action keeps up a pace which maintains the interest of the reader and continues the tension throughout, while keeping up the human interest of the reoccurring characters. Maisie is very much the centre of this most engaging book, and I recommend you discover or rediscover her very soon.
Today we went over to Buxton to use the University library which is in the Dome dominating a hill above the town. It is a spectacular building and has a special interest for me as it is where Vera Brittain first started nursing. A display shows pictures of Vera and others telling her story. The dome is apparently a quarter of a mile around, a distance which Vera and the other nurses had to run around as they were not allowed to go across the immense circular building. Even though it is now used for student functions and other purposes, it still feels a very significant place. Buxton of course looked at its best in the sunshine, and had it not been for all the books I had to track down it would have been nice to have a look around. Still, it isn’t that far away, so another day…