Saturday, April 23, 2011

A LESSON IN SECRETS, Jacqueline Winspear: The 8th Maisie Dobbs Mystery

Maisie Dobbs is an expert at re-creating her life: From the role of a servant, she educated herself and advanced to being a nurse at the painful edges of the Great War. With war's end and peace, she opened a detective agency in London. She studied with her mentor, Maurice Blanche, learning to think clearly, ask wise questions, and seek wisdom -- including through meditation, as well as action. And she began a careful working relationship with investigators of other British bodies, like Scotland Yard.

The eighth Maisie Dobbs mystery (after Maisie Dobbs; Birds of a Feather; Pardonable Lies; Messenger of Truth; An Incomplete Revenge; Among the Mad; and ) opens in 1932, the year before Adolf Hitler would assume enormous power in Germany. It's hard to write a series fitted into years when "we readers" know a lot about what's destined to happen: the rise of the Third Reich, the twisting rationales for persecution of ethnic and religious groups, the inexorable movement toward eruption of war for the second time in half a century, involving Europe and eventually the United States. Jacqueline Winspear weaves a cautious route of foreshadowing and limitation -- as does Dobbs herself, recruited to work for both Scotland Yard's Special Branch and the Secret Service, and soon hot on the trail of a murderer at a small Cambridge college.

In classic modern detective format, Dobbs finds her life complicated by other strands that need attention at the same time as her case: her new and as yet untested romantic relationship with the often mysterious James Campton; the disappearance of her newly hired file clerk; the tension of a new baby arriving in her assistant's family, where an earlier baby had dies. In Winspear's hands, Dobbs confesses that the multiple strands and pressures have knitted into a circle of constant demands.

But where many another mystery -- including the earlier Maisie Dobbs ones -- would ride an increasing tension of threat and risk, A LESSON IN SECRETS quietly dodges each crisis. A threatening crime lord is arrested off scene, without repercussions. A killing is so mildly executed that it's accepted as a heart attack. Maisie's concerns about whether James is cheating on her rise to one session of weepy concern, then are put to rest before they have cost her anything of value.

At times, the quiet movement of scenes and characters even becomes a little silly, as in this passage in which "facts" that should have been part of earlier structure are hastily introduced:
Upon reaching the railway station in Cambridge, Maisie went straight to a telephone kiosk and placed a call to The Old Fenland Mill, the inn where she knew MacFarlane and Stratton had taken rooms. She left a message for MacFarlane, and said that she would meet them at seven o'clock in the private bar.

Now she was on her way to see Professor Arthur Henderson. Although he was retired, she had managed to find out his address from a porter at Trinity College -- again, lies came easily when she was in search of more color to add to her picture of Greville Liddicote.
In this instance, the inn gets offhandedly introduced, as well as a new professor's name and retirement. And the issue of lying in order to get information gets tossed out, as it will be repeatedly through the book. But there is no cost, no pain, from all the lies Maisie keeps utilizing to solve her case.

I ended up frustrated by what could have been a much better book -- and feeling that it's filling a timeline that Winspear must already envision, carrying Maisie Dobbs toward warlike Germany and the Resistance movements about to emerge.

If you're a series reader, this book is necessary to connect the earlier books and the ones yet to come. But oh, how I wished it had serious consequences and events that mattered. Even the silvery shadow of the late Maurice Blanche wavers in too much ordinary sunlight in this volume. Yes, it happens. And in the best of worlds, the "next book" comes through incisively, justifying the time spent waiting in the hallway for something significant to happen.

In which case -- consider me waiting for the next Jacqueline Winspear work.

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