Books

REVIEW | 'The American Agent'

In Jacqueline Winspear's lastest Maisie Dobbs investigates a murder amid the Blitz

“The American Agent: A Maisie Dobbs Novel” by Jacqueline Winspear; Harper (384 pages, $27.99). (HarperCollins Publishers/TNS)
“The American Agent: A Maisie Dobbs Novel” by Jacqueline Winspear; Harper (384 pages, $27.99). (HarperCollins Publishers/TNS)

Maisie Dobbs’ devoted readers have been through a lot with her. In “The American Agent,” the 14th novel about Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, they’ll follow the psychologist and investigator through the darkest days of the World War II Blitz on London as she investigates a murder with ominous political baggage.

In the eponymous 2003 novel that introduced her, Maisie was a young nurse trying to save the lives of soldiers amid the carnage of World War I. In the novels since, she has studied psychology and crime investigation with the eminent Maurice Blanche, lost her young fiance to his war injuries, worked with Blanche and then set up her own agency after his death, fallen in love again, married a man who changed her life and, again, suffered terrible loss.

Through it all she has solved sometimes harrowing cases with a mixture of intelligence, intuition, determination and compassion that makes her — and it’s an odd compliment, I know — one of the most soothing characters in crime fiction. Reading a Maisie Dobbs book is a little like spending time with an old friend you don’t see often enough, if your old friend’s gig is tracking down and capturing criminals.

Maisie’s gentle, thoughtful nature is such a hallmark, though, that another book is being published in tandem with “The American Agent.” Based on fan contributions to a Facebook group, it’s a collection of quotes called “What Would Maisie Do? Inspiration From the Pages of Maisie Dobbs.”

Winspear, who is British but has lived in the United States for almost 30 years, has said that the idea for the books grew out of hearing stories of her grandfather’s experiences in World War I. She researches each novel so carefully that the series could almost serve as a history of the United Kingdom in the first half of the 20th century.

“The American Agent” opens with Maisie and her best friend, the wealthy and flamboyant Priscilla Partridge, returning to the same duty they performed in the last war: driving an ambulance. This time, instead of treating soldiers at the front, they’re rescuing civilians from fires and collapsed homes, maneuvering through rubble-strewn London as the bombs fall around them.

Winspear couches the first couple of pages of the book in a radio broadcast by a young American reporter who rides along with Maisie and Pris, and obviously admires their courage and competence under fire.

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The friends like her, too, judging her “a good sport” the next day. So it’s a shock when Maisie gets a call from her Scotland Yard friend, Robbie MacFarlane, to tell her that Catherine Saxon is dead. “And we can’t lay this one at Hitler’s feet — she was murdered. Twenty-six years of age and someone saw fit to slit her throat,” he says.

MacFarlane wants Maisie to look into her death and do so quietly. It seems Catherine’s father is a powerful U.S. senator who disapproved not only of his daughter’s career as a journalist but of her efforts to inform Americans about the horrors of the war.

It’s 1940, and the United States has not yet entered World War II. The senator, like many other prominent Americans, is an isolationist who resists sending the Allies anything — troops, supplies, money or even political support. The British, under siege by the Luftwaffe, are resentful. Some even suspect that Americans, at least some of them, sympathize with Hitler.

Splashing Catherine’s murder across the headlines would turn up the flame under that controversy, and people very high up the political food chain don’t want that.

Maisie has another delicate angle to deal with as she tries to find Catherine’s killer. The U.S. Embassy wants her to work with the person of the book’s title. He turns out to be Mark Scott, the charming but enigmatic U.S. Department of Justice agent who helped Maisie out of a serious jam in Munich in 1938 a few books back. She still doesn’t trust him — or her own feelings about him.

On the home front, at her manor house in Chelstone, Maisie’s father and stepmother are caring for a young evacuee named Anna, whom Maisie took in as part of Operation Pied Piper, which evacuated about 3 million people, most of them children, out of London in four days in 1939 as Hitler’s armies advanced across Europe. Maisie has grown to love the little girl, and her efforts to adopt Anna run through the book.

Motherhood has taken a frightening turn for Priscilla. The oldest of her three sons was seriously injured at Dunkirk, and the second has joined the RAF. The war will put Priscilla herself in peril, too.

Motherhood also becomes a factor in the case of Catherine Saxon’s murder, as Maisie and her assistant, the cheery but formidable Billy Beale, pursue its complexities. What will Maisie do? Don’t worry, she’ll explain it all.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.