Allison and Busby | 2019 (26 March) | 365p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is September 1940 and London, as well as towns and cities across the UK, are under attack. The Blitz keeps people from their beds, cramming them into shelters and cellars for sleepless, frightening nights, while others work in the night as ambulance drivers, fire wardens, medics and so on to save lives while houses and streets burn. In the daytime, a kind of normality takes over despite the bomb damage and the grief. Men and women continue with their daily jobs, certainly very tired but determined to carry on with their lives before the ‘murder’ of bombers return. Maisie Dobbs, like so many others, knows about loss and worry as well as personal injury, but her life is full, driving a London ambulance at night alongside her closest friend, while working as a psychologist and investigator by day. Her mind, though, is very much on the people she loves at her home in Kent.
When an American war correspondent, Catherine Saxon, is found with her throat cut, it becomes the business not only of the police but also of the American Embassy. An agent there has history with Maisie and it’s her help with the case that he wants. It won’t be an easy working relationship. How can she trust anything he says? But Maisie cares deeply about this murdered young woman who once did a shift in Maisie’s ambulance as a witness to the horror that Londoners endure every single night. Churchill is desperate to get America into the war but there are many in America who want to keep her out of it, who hate the American journalists and pilots who have come to Britain to help with the war effort. While the bombs fall, Maisie realises that this could prove a most significant case and she must do everything she can to solve it.
The American Agent is the fifteenth novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s series to feature the truly wonderful Maisie Dobbs. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first I’ve read. This is a series that has passed me by and I’m so sorry about that because I fell instantly for Maisie. The fact that I haven’t read any of the earlier books did mean that I was unfamiliar with some of the scrapes that are alluded to here, such as in wartorn Spain and in Nazi Germany, as well as some of the people who have influenced her life, one of whom plays a significant role here. But, despite that, I had no trouble immersing myself in Maisie’s world, with her close circle of family and friends, and it didn’t spoil past events for me. It made me want to go back and read them. But The American Agent stands alone very well indeed.
The Blitz setting is superbly drawn. We’re spared the blood and gore but none of the drama and the relentless fear. War has come to London. Nobody is safe. There’s a strong feeling in the novel that loved ones should be held close and protected. But how can you protect them against bombs? Some choose to send their children away to strangers in distant countries. What kind of answer is that? People are having to make difficult decisions all of the time but alongside all of that and the danger, they also have to deal with the discomfort. People have to try and sleep wherever they end up when the siren sounds. As Maisie continues her investigations, she ends up sleeping in all sorts of places, and that’s when she’s not driving her ambulance. The memory of the Great War isn’t far away and soldiers are returning from the front missing limbs, horribly scarred, just as they did in that first war. All of this is evoked with such skill and feeling by Jacqueline Winspear. There is, though, an appealing lightness to the novel, even a whimsical playfulness on occasion, but there is a darkness and sadness too and these moods complement each other perfectly.
The mystery is such an enjoyable one and I love the way in which the investigation develops. It’s all carried out politely, without great drama (the drama comes from the setting), and is revealed through Maisie’s skill at getting people to talk. We meet such fascinating people, each with their stories to tell, as the murdered woman is brought alive through their memories. I loved it. And there were tears.
The American Agent may be the first Maisie Dobbs novel I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. It gives us such a moving, evocative portrayal of London and Kent under attack from the Blitz in the last weeks of 1940, combined with a fascinating mystery investigated by a woman I adored. I can’t sing its praises enough.