Maisie ended the call and left for the station. She wondered how she had become so much more adept at telling lies since she signed the Official Secrets Act. But then, secrets and lies always went together.
(from A Lesson in Secrets, page 208)
I can’t believe I waited so long to read a Maisie Dobbs book! Given the setting of the series between the world wars, I’ve long been wanting to start it, but I honestly wouldn’t have started reading it right now except for the fact that its the April pick for my book club and I was offered a spot on the Maisie Dobbs blog tour. If you’ve been waiting as long as me to give this series a try, trust me, you’ll want to drop everything right now and get started.
A Lesson in Secrets is the 8th book in Jacqueline Winspear‘s series about Maisie Dobbs, a psychologist and investigator based in post-World War I London. Maisie runs her own private detective agency, where she works with her assistant, the endearing Billy Beale. There’s a lot going on in this book, and Winspear wastes no time getting into the action, as the first line indicates that Maisie is being followed. Maisie is soon tapped for an undercover assignment with the British Secret Service in which she becomes a junior lecturer in philosophy at the College of St. Francis in Cambridge. The college was founded by Greville Liddicote, a pacifist who wrote a children’s book during World War I that, according to rumors, caused a mutiny on the Western Front.
Maisie is supposed to watch the comings and goings of the various faculty members and report on any activities not in the interests of the Crown and government. Her job becomes more exciting and demanding when Liddicote is murdered, and she is expected to stand back and let Scotland Yard handle the murder investigation. Of course, Maisie isn’t going to relegate herself to the sidelines, so thankfully her assignment puts her in direct contact with numerous people who may have wanted Liddicote dead.
Meanwhile, Maisie is trying to get her father to move from his cottage to the house she inherited from her late mentor, and she takes advantage of her new found wealth and a boom in home construction to help Billy and his family move out of a shady section of the city — but she has her work cut out for her given her father’s and Billy’s stubbornness. There’s a mystery involving the death of the husband of one of Maisie’s friends, a young woman who is now homeless and jobless and turns to Maisie for help, and Maisie also contemplates her relationship with James Compton and whether or not she’s ready to take the next step.
Winspear truly is a talented writer, and I still can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read her work. She juggles multiple storylines and numerous, complex characters with ease. It’s never difficult to follow the various threads of the story, and I was impressed by how she made connections between the characters and Liddicote. Best of all, I had no idea whodunnit until it was revealed in the narrative, which kept me plowing through the pages long after my bedtime.
A Lesson in Secrets can be read as a stand-alone book, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything from the prior books. However, I bet it would have been a richer experience if I’d read all the previous books first, especially in terms of Maisie’s relationship with James and her connections to the other characters. I think I got to know Maisie well enough through this book — she’s an independent woman who knows both poverty and wealth and is scarred (literally and figuratively) by her service as a nurse in World War I — but I’m definitely going to go back to the beginning to see what I’ve missed.
The setting itself could be considered a character. It’s 1932, and Hitler’s Nazi Party is coming to power in Germany. Maisie thinks emerging support for the Nazis in England is a concern, though she is dismissed by her superiors. Of course, we know Maisie has cause for concern, and I hope this is all revealed in future books in the series. I also was captivated by the connections to World War I through a seemingly simple children’s book. Winspear provides much food for thought about pacifism, the treatment of conscientious objectors during the war when everyone was geared up to fight, and how people who had seen the outcome of the war could ignore what was going on in Germany in 1932.
A Lesson in Secrets was a delightful read, one that made me excited about mysteries again, probably because of the war-related connections and the character of Maisie. The story is old fashioned in that it takes place in the 1930s, but Maisie is very much a modern woman, and I love that about her. I can’t wait to discuss it with my book club next month, and I can’t wait to read more about Maisie Dobbs. She’s become one of my favorite literary characters, and I’ve only read one book in the series so far!
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