Title: A Lesson in Secrets: a Maisie Dobbs novel
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
LEP reading challenge info:
World: How Shall We Read. Level: 6 Borrowed from a friend
This is the eighth in the Maisie Dobbs series of mystery novels by Jacqueline Winspear. I read the first seven books about 10 years ago but then went to grad school and changed careers and didn’t have time to keep up with the series. I have just picked it up again.
For those not familiar w/ the Maisie Dobbs series, it is set in the interwar years in England with protagonist Maisie Dobbs, a very bright and thoughtful working-class girl who has, by this point in the series, made very good. Maisie was taken under the patronage of the wealthy Compton family, to whom she was in domestic service as a teen, and also mentored as a private investigator by their eccentric and brilliant friend Dr. Maurice Blanche. Having served as a front-line nurse in France during the war, and been wounded, Maisie is especially sensitive to the impact of the Great War on English society and all around her. She is also a graduate of one of the women’s colleges at Cambridge. Over the course of the series we see her mature in her investigative skills under Blanche’s tutelage and also come to terms with the physical and mental wounds inflicted on her and several gentlemen of her acquaintance by their wartime experiences.
By this installment, set in 1932, Maisie is well-established in her own private investigative practice, and is mourning the death of her long-time mentor Maurice Blanche. The case which occupies her is a special assignment from Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the British Secret Service (as it is called in the book; now better known as MI6–the branch of the Secret Intelligence Service focused on foreign threats). She is placed undercover as a philosophy instructor at a recently-established college in Cambridge which focuses on peace studies and has many international students, to report on any signs of dangerous foreign activities. Of course her assignment is made more complex when the College’s Principal is murdered during her first week teaching. Familiar characters from past novels make appearances—Detective Chief Inspector Stratton, James Compton, Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale, and so on.
I was first drawn to this series a decade ago by its striking Art Deco style cover art, and its having a female protagonist. I kept reading both because Maisie is an interesting, unusual character and because of the way Winspear makes the effects of the Great War on England a constant theme in the series. I am a historian by initial training with a particular interest in military history, but my American-centric education left me nearly totally ignorant of the huge human and psychic costs of that War on Great Britain. Winspear is a native of Kent in England (where many scenes early in the series are set) though she has lived in California for 30 years. Her grandfather was badly wounded and gassed in the Somme and spent the next 50 years of his life tending his fragile lungs and pulling shrapnel out of his body. Winspear’s interest in the Great War and its impact stems from her relationship with her grandfather. In interviews she has said she also wished to showcase the women of the war generation and the unusual opportunities they grasped as a result of the social upheaval it caused.
Maisie is an engaging and unusual character and one you enjoy getting to know. I recommend starting at the beginning of the series and reading in order, so you can appreciate her maturation. This installment isn’t one of the most dynamic, but it was enjoyable, and it seems to portend a turn in Maisie’s caseload from more mundane domestic cases to ones with national and international intrigue, as MI6 turns to her as the natural successor to Blanche, who, unbeknownst to Maisie, had done extensive work on behalf of the Crown. In this episode we learn a bit about the role of women in the Resistance in WWI.
This series has always reminded me strongly of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. “Russell” fans will like Maisie very much. The two series are very similar, and especially in this episode, with Maisie juggling a post at a university with her detective duties, I had to stop and remind myself which series I was in. Maisie is more an independent operator than Russell, without the partnership of a Holmes, but the similarities are striking—War and immediate post-War period, both girls Oxbridge educated (though Mary Russell is an orphan she is not lower-class, unlike Maisie) and mentored by older male detectives and eventually becoming their equals. Both even have a taste for sporty roadsters. I think the Russell books are a bit more complex and fast-paced, and the Russell-Holmes dynamic adds a dimension not present in the Maisie Dobbs series, but a fan of either one will appreciate the other. I look forward to continuing to catch up with Maisie—the series now has several more volumes beyond this one.