Every year about this time I look forward to a new Maisie Dobbs mystery. Maisie is one of the few fictional sleuths that I follow faithfully (though I dip into quite a few other mystery series). Jacqueline Winspear is very good about publishing her books regularly and not letting too much time pass before a new instalment is released, the latest being A Lesson in Secrets. What I like most about these books, aside from the characters and interwar setting, is that she never lets the storyline go stale. It's not just Maisie Dobbs solving a new mystery, but her life and the lives of those around her are constantly changing with the times. Of course the mystery aspect is interesting but it's also the other myriad details of life in the 1930s and the interplay between characters that I enjoy so much and draws me back to these books again and again.
Once again Winspear moves in a new direction and the story has gotten slightly more complex than previous books. Although I won't give away spoilers, I will be mentioning a few details from the last book, The Mapping of Love and Death, which you might not want to know if you've not yet read it, so a bit of a heads up here. As each book seems to build upon the last it's hard to talk about them without letting something important slip.
With the death of her former mentor and associate Maurice Blanche, Maisie finds herself in more comfortable circumstances having inherited the Dower House from Maurice along with a healthy savings account. With her business doing well despite the country falling into a depression and many out of work, several new opportunities come Maisie's way. Maurice was a great influence on her and she continues to feel his presence in her life, so when she's asked to take on an assignment with the British Secret Service, it seems a natural step forward to her. It was only in recent years that Maisie learned of Maurice's own work with Special Branch, particularly during the war years. There's a growing concern about the activities of a man who has established a small, private college in Cambridge. As many members of the staff and student body are foreign born, Maisie is asked to take on a job as a lecturer in philosophy in order to observe the inner workings of the college and try and suss out if any of their activities are against the interests of the government.
Greville Liddicote, the college's founder, is found dead shortly after Maisie's arrival, which makes things messy. Her brief does not include trying to find Liddicote's murderer, but his life's work seems inextricably tied up with the work at the college and possibly became the motive for his murder. Liddicote is a famed author of children's books, the latter few with strong pacifist messages, and there is rumor the books were the cause of an embarrassment to the British government during the war, which was subsequently hushed up. It's not in Maisie's character to not seek the truth in the matters she's investigating, so finds herself mixed up in inquiries on several fronts.
Billy Beale, Maisie's assistant is asked to take care of the day to day cases in London and is joined by a young woman who was also in service with the Compton family but left to marry. When her husband is unexpectedly killed in an accident Maisie takes her under her wing and offers her a job in the office. Sandra proves to be a good worker but is convinced her husband's death was not accidental, and ends up in trouble when she starts doing a little snooping of her own on the side.
There are a number of different threads to this latest Maisie Dobbs mystery. While the situation she finds herself in is new, working for the Secret Service, there is still the element of mystery solving to the story. By branching out into the area of national security Winspear is opening the storyline up to many new elements that I expect she'll flesh out in upcoming novels. Maisie is a very rational, analytical character who through her training as a nurse and then later at Cambridge and with Maurice Blanche has received a perhaps unique but practical background for this sort of work. She still does all the legwork and questioning you would expect of a inquiry agent and will occasionally work closely with detectives at the Met, but she also uses the science of psychology in finding the solution to the cases she works on.
As Maisie's professional life progresses, so too her personal life has developed and she's grown and matured over the course of the novels. And there is again the whisper of a romantic side to Maisie, though that is largely on the back burner this time around. What Winspear does begin exploring is the rising tide of Nazism, thought at the time to be benign and maybe even somewhat positive in some circles. Given Maisie's past experiences, it's not a political movement she finds encouraging. As always I am curious to see which direction Winspear takes Maisie next. Quite often the stories reach back to events during the First World War, but we all know the turmoil that Maisie and so many others will soon be confronting.
I'm sure I say this about every new Maisie Dobbs mystery I read, but this is my favorite so far. And as expected it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. My copy was courtesy of Harpercollins and Netgalley.