In the summer of 1932, Maisie Dobbs’ career goes in an exciting new direction when she accepts an undercover assignment directed by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the Secret Service. Posing as a junior lecturer, she is sent to a private college in Cambridge to monitor any activities “not in the interests of His Majesty’s Government.”
When the college’s controversial pacifist founder and principal, Greville Liddicote, is murdered, Maisie is directed to stand back as Detective Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane and Detective Chief Inspector Stratton spearhead the investigation. She soon discovers, however, that the circumstances of Liddicote’s death appear inextricably linked to the suspicious comings and goings of faculty and students under her surveillance.
To unravel this web, Maisie must overcome a reluctant Secret Service, discover shameful hidden truths about Britain’s conduct during the war, and face off against the rising powers of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei—the Nazi Party—in Britain.
A pivotal chapter in the life of Maisie Dobbs, A Lesson In Secrets marks the beginning of her intelligence work for the Crown. As the storm clouds of World War II gather on the horizon, Maisie will confront new challenges and new enemies—and will engage new readers and loyal fans of this bestselling mystery series.
A Lesson in Secrets, the eight novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, delivers another of Winspear’s patented psychological investigations with her usual historic flare. This novel ably delves into that uneasy time in history when the aftermath of World War I began to bleed into the first tremblings of World War II, and Maisie, a character so defined by her wartime experiences, is a wonderful vehicle for exploring the coming darkness in Europe.
The college setting – given there is such a illustrious history of foreign recruitment at colleges, the infamous Cambridge Five in particular – is a wonderful entrée into exploring the repercussions at home of the rise in fascism, and it makes for a lovely microcosm of international interests. It also lends the narrative a terrible sense of foreboding, as we meet so many bright young idealistic types who are so soon to be thrown to the dogs of war.
I do enjoy that Winspear is advancing this series through the march of history, but at the same time I found myself a bit reluctant to follow. As we just saw the last man known to have served in World War I pass away in the United States, I think it’s safe to say the Great War is a period in time on the verge of fading into obscurity, and I love how Winspear made that history vital again in this series. It brought a sense of revelation to her stories, as they delved into history I didn’t know. With A Lesson in Secrets I just had the sense of approaching familiar territory – from HBO miniseries to Ken Burns, the second World War is very much alive in popular culture, and we all know the history. I find I miss that sense of discovery I had in reading Winspear’s earlier books.
I also found myself harboring suspicions that Winspear was applying hindsight’s 20/20 vision to the events of the time – Maisie clearly sees the rise of fascism as a concern and a threat, yet I couldn’t help but wonder how she managed to extrapolate such a dire sense of danger from only a few months of investigating one small college. Was it all really so easy to see coming at that point in time? I firmly believe in Maisie’s intelligence, experience, and intuition – and in her well earned wariness of war – and so I can believe that the character would take the stance that she did, but that fact that she was so prescient, and so in line with modern sensibilities, just impinged on my consciousness. I guess I feel that she had the “right” answer perhaps a bit too easily.
But as ever, Winspear delivers a rich, layered and engrossing mystery. Maisie Dobbs novels have always been deliberate in their plotting, but A Lesson in Secrets is a little slower to boil than usual – it takes a good sixty pages for a murder to occur, and for me that’s when the story really came into focus. The nebulous Special Branch interests didn’t have that much of an impact on the story – Maisie goes about her investigating as she always has – and it felt more like a set-up for the murder than a plot that delivers in its own right (though I do very much like the potential going forward for Maisie to be involved in intelligence matters). The investigation is a fascinating series of character studies and ultimately a testament to the destructive power of secrets – and at the center of it all is a very interesting kind of secret, not at all what you’d expect. So all in all, A Lesson in Secrets delivers a very satisfying mystery.
In terms of subplots, there are a few threads concerning Maisie’s personal life – which I’m sure many long time fans will be delighted to see – and a minor secondary mystery that is largely solved by Billy and Sandra off-page. I liked Maisie’s struggles with allowing herself to be happy, but at times her financial independence did make things a tad too easy – yet I understand why Winspear wanted to grow Maisie’s story away from financial concerns, so as not to be repetitive.
All in all, Winspear delivers another wonderful psychological mystery with stunning historical detail. Maisie Dobbs, it’s a pleasure, as always.
Byrt Grade: A-
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
The eighth entry into the Maisie Dobbs series gives us a deeper look into the personal life of our protagonist, which I very much enjoyed. The book also deals with how the effects of WWI slowly become the causes of WWII. As we begin to see the rise of Hitler and the Nazis on the horizon, the tension begins to build for the reader, who knows how this portion of the story, at least, will go.
In Winspear’s solid eighth Maisie Dobbs novel (after The Mapping of Love and Death), Maisie finds herself financially independent, thanks to a bequest from her late mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche…Maisie’s new affluence allows her to intervene benevolently in the lives of those she cares for and her romantic life intensifies, but these positive personal developments end up making her less interesting as a protagonist than formerly.
I am very excited to finally see WWII on the horizon in this series. I describe it as a “slow burn” to prospective readers because I need them to understand that Maisie isn’t about action and adventure as much as she is about peeling away the layers of the people who lived through WWI.