It all started when my friend Jen asked if I read Maisie Dobbs. She knew how big a fan I am of Agatha Christie, and thought I’d enjoy Jacqueline Winspear’s novels as well. She happened to have an advanced reading copy of the latest in the series, and gave it to me. All I can say is, thank you, Jen! I just love Maisie Dobbs, and, like the Harper Collins executive who wrote the ARC’s cover letter, I too have become “an unabashed fan.”
A Lesson in Secrets begins with Maisie realizing that her car was being followed. In a style that reminds me of classic Nancy Drew, Maisie turns the tables on her pursuers and quite charmingly requests that they tell her why they were tailing her. It turns out the British Secret Service wants Maisie to go undercover as a lecturer at a private college in Cambridge, just to keep an eye out for any potential threats to the government. It’s 1932, and while the up-and-coming Nazi party still isn’t viewed as a threat, Britain is still reeling from the First World War and eager to establish stability. The college’s founder, Greville Liddicote, is a staunch pacifist, a controversial stance when love for one’s country is equated with the willingness to fight and die for it. So when Liddicote is found murdered, the novel broadens far beyond one man’s death, and tackles the overall sense of fear and confusion in Britain post-World War I. Winspear portrays the era wonderfully – we see the struggle between the war-engendered suspicion of foreigners and the desire for international cooperation, the discrimination against conscientious objectors to the war and its effect on their families, and Maisie’s own growing apprehension about the Nazis.
In Lesson, Winspear makes a strong case for the power of words. A lot of the mystery focuses on a children’s book about a group of fatherless children who try to end the war. The book was censored for its effectiveness at promoting pacifism: “The plight of orphaned children will always tug at the heartstrings.” Still, it was distributed widely through underground channels, and was rumoured to have caused a mutiny and an increase in conscientious objectors. Later on, during a debate, Maisie “felt a tremor of foreboding” because she sensed that a student “had stepped up with an intention to set the hall afire with his rhetoric” rather than “win the debate with honor.” Quite fittingly, Maisie’s primary weapons are her words. She investigates by talking to people, by reading between the lines and using sympathy and charm to get the information she needs. She lies easily, and more than once wonders at her ability to lie without blushing.
Above all, in an era when the very idea of nationalism is questioned, Maisie is adamant in her belief in Britain, to the point that her concerns about its future palpably affects her: “She had already seen much that she thought was not in the interests of the country she had served in a war still too easily remembered.” She, like Britain, has been scarred by the War, and again, like Britain, all she wants is to be able to live in peace. And she fights for this peace, eagerly and with conviction.
I especially love Maisie’s vulnerability in her personal life. In contrast to her confidence in solving murders and acting as a secret agent, Maisie is very hesitant when it comes to romance. Upon finding out that her lover James may have lied to her about his whereabouts, Maisie worries that her internal sensors have failed her somehow. Asked by friends about the possibility of marrying James, Maisie balks, partly because of the social convention that women give up their careers after marriage, but also partly because, she realizes, she’s afraid to believe in a “happily ever after.” Her concerns are very much grounded in the reality of women in her time, reminding us of all the women who have been left behind by those who’ve died in the War, and making her even more real.
A Lesson in Secrets has nuanced characters and an interesting mystery, and offers a fascinating look at Britain between the wars. I am now officially a Maisie Dobbs fan, and will be checking out the other books in the series.