Un­der fire

Beloved fic­tional char­ac­ter Maisie Dobbs in­ves­ti­gates a mur­der dur­ing the Blitz against Bri­tain in World War II

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • CO­LETTE BANCROFT

Maisie Dobbs’s 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 against Bri­tain 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 fi­ancé 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.

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 US 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 US Em­bassy wants her to work with the person of the book’s ti­tle. He turns out to be Mark Scott, the charm­ing but enig­matic US 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 three 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.

(Tampa Bay Times/TNS

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

THE BLITZ of Lon­don dur­ing World War II serves as the back­drop for the lat­est Maisie Dobbs novel.

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