Monday, November 18, 2013

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear (A Maisie Dobbs mystery)

We  historical mystery readers can be a pedantic, finicky lot. As a general rule, we don't do well with the passage of time. We want our detectives, investigators and heroes to remain in the Victorian, Edwardian or whatever era in perpetuity, solving mysteries during years that only move forward in passing mention, if at all.

I admit to being guilty of the same stodginess. I get rather nervous when an author brings another technological invention or historical event into my series.

But Jacqueline Winspear has impressed me in A Lesson in Secrets, the latest installment in the Maisie Dobbs series. Although the low rumble of impending World War II was already heard in the previous book, A Mapping of Love and Death, Winspear avoids a common mistake made by authors who chose to deal with the rather tricky decades between the wars in Europe.

That is, she remembers that Maisie, and indeed everyone around her, wouldn't yet think of the Nazis as the personification of evil in 1932, when the book takes place. Winspear does an excellent job showing  that for those just trying to make a living in the tattered economy after World War I, the politics and policies of Germany and Austria were skimmed headlines and background noise to the pressing needs of everyday life.

Winspear deals with dichotomy creatively. She puts Maisie on special assignment for the British Secret Service, placing her in an undercover position as a professor. Maisie is assigned to merely observe the school, founded by a notorious pacifist, in duly inform the Crown about anything going on that may be against their interests, a rather vague assignment.

Naturally, the murder of the college's founder inevitably draws Maisie into another hornet's nest entirely, leaving her navigate the secret service, run her business from afar and solve a murder she's been ordered not to investigate.

By putting Maisie at an academic institution, Winspear deftly gives Maisie, and by extension the reader, a plausible lens through which to examine the events happening on the continent, without any of the inadvertent, righteous hindsight that authors are inevitably forced to confront when writing about the mid- to late-1930s. This is deftly done primarily through discussion between characters and is some of the best period piece writing I have ever seen.

For example, Priscilla, Maisie's upper-crust close friend who drove an ambulance during World War I, casts a wary eye at the German political landscape, but primarily from a fear for her young sons, who are inching towards being old enough to serve in the armed forces. Having lost four brothers in the Great War, Priscilla's fear is palpable but not overwrought or written with any kind of prescient foreknowledge of events to come.

Other highlights of this read include more appearances by Detective Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane, who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting characters this rich series has to offer.

Notable character development also occurs with Maisie's father and Maisie's own relationship with James Compton is examined.

However, a kind of sub-plot arc involving Sandra, a former servant of the Comptons, is rather neglected. Maisie can't solve it herself and the story mostly unfolds through phone calls with her assistant, Billy. Because of that, what could be an equally interesting, if secondary, story line, becomes a bit distracting and feels more like an interruption than a separate plot arc.

Also, the last two installments in the series had me a bit concerned Maisie was becoming a bit of a Mary Sue. And while this installment in the series has much to recommend it, I fear Maisie is still walking dangerously close to that line.

Mary Sues are modestly perfect in every way, always of sound judgement and, naturally, coincidentally having whatever talent or ability a given situation calls for, like speaking an esoteric language or just happening to know about the migratory patterns of birds. In short, boring in their often ridiculous preparedness.

Granted, I don't read Maisie Dobbs expecting the gritty, hyper-realistically flawed characters that Denise Mina or Tana French create. That's an entirely different style of mystery, if not a exactly a separate genre. But that being said, Winspear is too talented to let such a wonderful character become two-dimensional.

Winspear seems to address this by making it clear she and James are not waiting for wedding bells to consummate their relationship.  Actually, she makes it a bit too clear, though not through any explicit scenes (yes, a young adult can more than safely read this). Still, it's brought up often enough with comments from other characters that one wants to say, "We get it, already. They're in a conjugal relationship."

But, given the time period, in a way that was a bit rebellious, as is Maisie being a woman entrepreneur and investigator. So perhaps I am being a bit harsh on Winspear in this regard. Still, I think it would be refreshing to see Maisie be bad, or at least not good, at Math or something.

This book also highlights how Masie still goes about trying to solve her assistant's and father's and everyone else's problems. It's not a problem that she does good deeds and finds deft ways to help those she cares about with her new wealth, exactly, but the fact that no one but her father seems to lash out against her flat-out meddling is a bit implausible.

Still, a solid entry into what is still a great series. For once, I am actually looking forward to seeing what impact the march of time and World War II has on the wonderful characters Winspear has created.

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