A Sunlit Weapon
A Sunlit Weapon is the seventeenth book in the Maisie Dobbs series and I don’t recommend it as a standalone. Several events from past novels in the series are referred to, meaning this book contains spoilers for those works and this one also relies heavily on the reader’s knowledge of occurrences/characters in previous instalments.
October 1942 finds England deeply embroiled in the war. Jo Hardy has eagerly been doing her part since the start of the fighting, and at present works for the ATA ferrying planes between airfields. She’s enjoying her chance at piloting a Supermarine Spitfire to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, and has taken the opportunity to perform a few technically illegal but harmless maneuvers that bring her closer to land than she’s supposed to go. That’s when someone starts shooting at her with a gun, typically not the kind of fire that could bring a Spitfire down – they normally fly too high for such a weapon to affect them – but Jo’s aerial stunts have put her in a precariously low position. She’s able to get away but of course, is deeply upset by what happened. She returns to the location with a friend, determined to look for clues to help identify the shooter, and gets more than she bargained for. Inside the barn beside which the shooter had stood is an American serviceman, bound and gagged and clearly frightened. Jo and her pal help him escape and return him to his base, but the man is filled with misgivings. As a black soldier, Matthias Crittendon is concerned about being accused of desertion and the murder of the white veteran who was with him and is now missing.
Two days later, another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo’s plane was attacked, and the young woman dies in the accident. Everyone but Jo views this as a simple tragedy caused by pilot error. Determined to find out what is going on but not sure how to go about investigating the issue while still performing her very demanding job, Jo hires psychologist/investigator Maisie Dobbs. Maisie’s husband Mark, a high-ranking political attaché based at the American embassy, advises against pursuing the case but Maisie is determined to solve the riddle and bring Jo, Matthias, and the dead pilot some justice.
It’s pretty clear from both the back blurb of the book and the initial portion of the story that the mystery revolves around the visit of the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, to England in 1942. It is Mark’s job to keep Mrs. Roosevelt safe so it is extremely convenient that his wife winds up being the one investigating her potential killers. However, because history tells us that Mrs. Roosevelt lived for several decades after the war, there is no urgency to the mystery and in fact, the book would have worked better without this crossover since the pilot deaths would have been more interesting on their own than they were as part of the larger conundrum.
The secondary plot in the novel is about Anna, Maisie and Mark’s adopted daughter, and how that young lady is faring in her new life with them. I’ve mentioned before that I find Mark and Anna rather tedious additions to these stories and I will say that has not changed in this book. Something that is positive about these characters – and all the primary characters in the novel – is that the author does a superb job of both keeping them consistent and having them grow throughout the series. Maisie, Mark, Billy et al are who they have always been, but they change and expand as life throws them new challenges. That’s a rare skill in a series writer and it is this which has kept me reading Ms. Winspear’s work for a decade.
The mystery and domestic problems both deal with issues around racism. While much is made of America’s disgraceful treatment of Black soldiers, we also take a look at the equally harmful racism Anna deals with while staying in the English countryside. The subject is viewed from the perspective of macro rather than microaggressions and the discrimination is so blatant and obvious that the reader doesn’t have to stretch themselves at all to see it.
And that may have been my biggest problem with this tale, that everything is fairly obvious and directly on the page, with little nuance or subtlety given to the mystery, the domestic issues, or the underlying prejudices driving some of the narratives. While the historicity is absolutely excellent, and the prose smooth and elegant, the lack of any tension in the story, either through pacing or subject matter, makes this slow going.
Fans of the Maisie Dobbs series will probably still be eager to read A Sunlit Weapon. After all, when you are on book seventeen of a saga, you are a pretty devoted follower. I’ll just say this isn’t Ms. Winspear’s best work and I hope the next is a bit better.
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I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.