Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is the only series of mystery novels I’ve read in its entirety and that I make a point of keeping up with. I always enjoy them, although I don’t think they are top-notch novels. They are fun, but mostly I keep reading them because I want to find out what happens to the character, and I also find the process of reading through an entire series interesting. I like watching what happens to her over the years, the relationships that begin and end, the jobs that come and go, the ways her personality and experiences change. I like seeing just how much Winspear will develop her character over the course of one book and how she ends certain stories and begins new ones.
I also like seeing how Winspear deals with the changing historical context — the 1920s into the 1930s — and how that context shapes the mysteries Maisie attempts to solve. The earlier books focused on the lingering consequences of World War I, especially veterans suffering from war wounds, both physical and mental, that they couldn’t quite recover from. More recently, and especially in this latest book, Winspear is beginning to shift her focus onto the new conflict on its way, although World War I still plays an important role in the story. There is a heavy sense of foreboding in A Lesson in Secrets; the more perceptive characters are aware that the situation in Germany is looking more and more dangerous, and people are beginning to discuss Hitler and the Nazi party.
In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie is approached by the British Secret Service. They want her to take on a job teaching philosophy at a college in Cambridge to keep an eye on possibly subversive activity there. The college was founded with the goal of promulgating peace by bringing students from many different countries together. As will be no surprise to mystery readers, it’s not too long before someone gets murdered, at which point Maisie has two jobs — her original undercover work and her efforts to solve the murder. Her detective work leads her in interesting directions — she learns about a man who wrote young adult books espousing pacificism that were so powerful that disillusioned soldiers in the trenches of World War I stopped fighting. She also investigates students and staff from the college who attend pro-Nazi rallies in London. Maisie is worried that the Secret Service is not taking these meetings seriously enough.
I described her as having two jobs, but really, of course, she has three, which is the thing that drove me a little crazy about this book. In addition to her complicated detective work (there is another subplot about a missing friend, although she is not in charge of that investigation), she is becoming a teacher for the first time. I just could not believe that anybody could take up teaching quite as easily and naturally as Maisie does, all the while spending most of her time on her investigations. She has no worries or angst about what goes on in the classroom; she carries around a stack of papers, but doesn’t seem to spend much time reading them; and we don’t learn much about how and when she prepares for class. And this after being out of an academic environment for many years. Oh, and she gets the job very, very easily, although that may have been because of connections and the Secret Service pulling strings. But she only needs to spend a week or two preparing for her interview and her new classes, apparently having forgotten absolutely nothing of the curriculum from her Cambridge years.
This touches on something that has bothered me about Maisie before — she is just too perfect. Yes, she has flaws, but they feel fake — not really flaws, just struggles that come out of her poor childhood and her World War I nursing experiences. She would feel more human to me if she did stupid things occasionally, or if she forgot something important, or if her amazing intuitive powers failed her now and then.
But still, I enjoy reading these books, and they always give me things to think about, even, sometimes, if it’s thoughts about what didn’t work.