Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jacqueline Winspear sets Maisie against incipient fascists in thirties Cambridge.

I’ve read another of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries, and this one is every bit as good as the others.

A Lesson in Secrets

Maisie Dobbs ended the last 1930s novel, The Mapping of Love and Death, in the arms of her handsome aristocratic lover, James; but in A Lesson in Secrets (323 pages, Harper, $25.99) he is at first nowhere to be found. Instead, Maisie is approached by a rather clumsy secret service agent (she knows they are following her) and asked to infiltrate a recently founded college in Cambridge in order to discover if they are conducting activities that could be said to put his majesty’s government at risk.

Maisie had done considerable academic work at Girton, in Cambridge, before setting up as a private investigator in London, and she quite likes the idea of dusting off her books and standing before philosophy students in this private college.

The college’s founder, Greville Liddicote, is an eccentric character even for the already eccentric academic world. A children’s book author, he has started the college with a pacifist mission. It seems that one of his publications at the time of the First World War had such a profound effect on the soldiers at the front that some simply put down their weapons and walked away from battle. Some of these were executed as deserters. In any event, though, the publication was stopped and Liddicote became something of an anti-war force all his own.

The college’s specialty is pacifist studies, and many of those working there share these beliefs most vigorously. When Greville is murdered in his office shortly after Maisie arrives to teach at the school, her focus shifts from uncovering covert activity to exposing a murderer.

First, of course, she has to decide who the murder is, and that allows her to snoop into all sorts of private college business.

She finds to her shock that the man whose financial support made the college possible was someone whose own son was a victim of Liddicote’s notorious novel. It seems that Dunstan Headley understood the message of Liddicote’s publication even if he lamented the loss it caused him and his family. His surviving son does not seem to be so generous, and he hates Liddicote both for the death of his brother and his pacifist messages. He thinks Germany has found a savior in the person of Adollf Hitler, and he would like to see Hitler’s policies adopted in England. He has linked up with an attractive female on the staff, and even before Maisie suspects that they might involved in the murder, she has been reporting on their fascist tendencies.

There are other faculty members that fascinate Maisie from both perspectives. Matthias Roth, a German who had joined Liddicote in his pacifist mission but who seemed to disagree with him vociferously about everything; Francesca Thomas, a very beautiful and well-dressed language teacher, who disappears regularly into London; and Rosemary Linden, Liddicote’s secretary who disappears immediately after the killing.

All these characters and the Cambridge setting make this an academic romp; but the politics of the thirties are richly painted, and the various motivations of the characters are dazzlingly developed. The ending is as right as it is well-crafted.

If you have time to yourself this summer, take along one of Winspear’s novels. Maisie Dobbs is the kind of friend everyone would like to have.

Jacqueline Winspear

Order a copy of A Lesson In Secrets from Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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