Gretchen Haertsch Reviews Jacqueline Winspear’s A Lesson In Secrets
In April I interviewed bestselling novelist Jacqueline Winspear for this blog. Winspear is the author of the riveting Maisie Dobbs novels, historical mysteries set in post-World War I England. The eighth in the series and just released in March of this year, A Lesson In Secrets more than holds its own among its predecessors. Of course, my delight in the latest of Winspear’s sleuth-a-thons might be partly attributable to how well the novel meshes with my own life. After all, this time around the intrepid private investigator and psychologist poses as a college lecturer who parses the background of an influential children’s book writer. Influential I am not, but I am an adjunct professor and children’s writer who believes strongly in the power of children’s literature.
In A Lesson In Secrets, Miss Dobbs is called upon by Scotland Yard to infiltrate the College of St. Francis, a new private school with the high-minded mission of promoting world peace at a time when the wreckage of the Great War is evident on every street corner in England. But it is 1932 and the rising power of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – the Nazi Party – has already reared its hoary head, even in Cambridge, England, but the British government is largely clueless.
Maisie is no sooner positioned comfortably in her role as a spinster junior lecturer in philosophy when the college’s controversial pacifist founder and principal, Greville Liddicote, is murdered. Maisie’s mission is to monitor any activities “not in the interest of His Majesty’s government” but Maisie can’t resist trying to solve two murder mysteries at once: the first, the murder of Liddicote, who wrote a children’s book thought to have undermined the government during the war, and the second, what Maisie is sure is the murder of the husband of her new secretary Sandra. Yes, Maisie has moved up considerably in the world since her days as a maid in Ebury Place and is now able to employ a part time secretary in her growing detective agency.
Yet what is so satisfying about this series is that Maisie’s past is so successfully intertwined with her present, just as is real life. Sandra, after all, is a relic of Maisie’s days as a fledgling detective, and Billy Beale, assistant in her business, harkens back to her days as a nurse during the war. And even though her long-term mentor Maurice Blanche is now dead, he’s still with Maisie in spirit, both in her strong memories of him and in his legacy to her: Dower House, along with his boxes of papers and journals, “all clearly marked, all cataloged.” Winspear intricately weaves her characters’ pasts and presents to form a rich tapestry of life. That and the fact that Winspear is so winning as an historical writer is what sets her apart.
“I love research because I love history, and the era I write about fascinates me,” Winspear says in my interview with her. “Research is ongoing, so it never seems as if it is time-consuming – it’s part of a life-long passion, so it is never a weight in terms of my work.”
That attitude shows in the author’s painstaking historical detail and sharp focus. Not surprisingly, Winspear continues to underline the achievement of women in the early 20th century, this time around pointing out the “tens of thousands in London alone” that worked for the Secret Intelligence Service during the war. And echoing themes from Academy Award-winning The King’s Speech, Winspear reveals a government so focused on the nation’s Communist menace that it fails to notice the real threat — the infiltration of British institutions and even the aristocracy with fascism. As one of Winspear’s characters puts it, “…they are all quite taken with this man Adolf Hitler.” Of course, the dauntless Miss Dobbs is not fooled for a minute. And what of an institution dedicated and founded on the premise of pacifism like the College of St. Francis? Is it built on a strong foundation, or is it a house of cards built on secrets and lies? But then as Miss Dobbs well knows “secrets and lies always went together.”