An American Agent
In The American Agent, the fifteenth novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, we find our titular heroine working as a volunteer ambulance driver during the 1940 London Blitz. A tale of triumph over tragedy, it is sure to please the author’s many fans. While the mystery portion might work fine as a standalone, the book is definitely best read in sequence with the rest of the series since there is a prodigious amount of background information pertaining to Maisie’s personal life the reader would benefit from knowing before jumping in.
One night while on ambulance duty with best friend Pris, Maisie and her pal meet American journalist Catherine Saxon, who reports on the terror stalking London for news agencies back home. Catherine is on the verge of a big opportunity in her career – the chance to host a radio program for the same agency that employs the famous Edward R. Murrow. If she makes a good impression with this premiere broadcast, she might be able to turn it into a regular gig. Determined to get all the information she can to make her show a success, Catherine is spending the hours before the transmission deep amongst the people she will be reporting on. Impressed with her willingness to join them on their dangerous rounds, and Catherine’s ability to interview the victims and first responders with tenacity and gentleness, Maisie parts company with the journalist feeling she has found a new friend. It’s a short-lived acquaintance. Catherine is found murdered in her flat the very next morning.
Maisie learns of the crime from Robbie Macfarlane, a man who works “in the opaque realm between Scotland Yard and the Secret Service”. It quickly becomes apparent why Robbie is involved; Catherine was the daughter of a powerful U.S. Senator, an isolationist determined to keep America from aiding the British in their fight against the Nazis. While Catherine had been reporting on the horrors of the Blitz, her father had been assuring his constituents that such reporting was exaggerated propaganda. Given the political waters which her murder has disturbed, Scotland Yard has given jurisdiction of the crime to Maisie’s investigative firm. Since she operates in a murky sphere, sometimes doing work for the government but in such a manner that the government cannot be blamed for her decisions, she is ideally suited to work on a case which must be resolved cleanly and quietly. A gentleman from the American Embassy, Mark Scott, whom Maisie knows from her adventures in Munich (Journey to Munich, book twelve in the series) will be aiding her in the investigation. As the case becomes increasingly complicated, Maisie finds herself distracted by her growing feelings for Mark, the adoption of her (hopefully) soon to be daughter Anna, and the endless barrage of bombs which might soon consign all of them to the grave.
Like any long running series, the Maisie Dobbs lexicon contains great books, good books, bad books and everything in between. The American Agent definitely falls into the ‘good’ category for me. When the novel concentrates on the mystery, it is excellent. Maisie and her sidekick Billy do a stellar job of combining their talents to slowly but surely catch their killer. While Billy pounds the pavement following leads and gives his buds at Fleet Street liquid inducements to spill their guts, Maisie quietly interrogates witnesses and meticulously examines the crime scene for any clues. What makes this portion of our story so interesting is the unique personalities of our investigators. Billy hides a keen mind and sharp instincts behind his friendly working-class demeanor while Maisie’s psychological and intuitive abilities combined with her upper crust façade make her a formidable interviewer. Between them they build a strong, tight case against their suspect.
The author also, as always, perfectly captures her time period. One of the strongest elements of this series is how Ms. Winspear shows us both the freedom and restrictions put on women of that era; she writes strong female characters in Maisie and best friend Pris, who are realistic for their time but are as liberated as any modern woman could wish to be.
The personal portion of this tale, however, kept the tale from DIK status. Maisie’s last two love affairs ended in tragedy, so I have reached a point where I dread rather than anticipate where things are headed when she meets a new man. We are definitely at the starting point with Mark and the affair is so low key it could easily not exist without any impact on the tale. The story line involving Anna is deeply confusing because I am not sure what her purpose in the story is. Maisie has a great many friends, family and acquaintances to give depth to her character and as is pointed out in the novel, she will have to rearrange the way she currently lives her life in order to parent a child. It seems likely that Anna’s inclusion will change the series from what it is now, and I have concerns about how the author will pull that off. In the past, change has not been a good look for this series and the author has had to scramble to get it back on track. Fortunately, in this particular tale, the personal distractions are kept to a moderate level and only minimally derail our mystery.
That mystery is complicated, baffling and heartbreaking. Catherine makes a sympathetic victim, while the questions surrounding her death include information often down-played in American history books. Few talk about the Kennedy family’s ties to the Nazi regime nor of Joseph Kennedy’s criminal behavior while he was an ambassador in England. Those historical tidbits combined with a tale of star-crossed lovers create an interesting conundrum for Maisie to solve.
I am certain fans of the author will be happy to read The American Agent. It may not be the strongest book in the series, but it is far from the worst and the whole saga altogether is deeply enjoyable. Fans of historical mysteries should absolutely read the Maisie Dobbs books, starting with the first titled simply enough, Maisie Dobbs.