Digging into a new Maisie Dobbs novel is like reuniting with an old friend. And she’s been my friend ever since, as a teenager, she enlisted as a nurse and served at a casualty clearing section behind the front lines in France during World War I. Now, in The American Agent, the fifteenth novel in the series, Maisie has built a successful practice as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s in her early forties, a widow with an aristocratic title she never uses, and the wealthy heir of her late mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche. And, like millions of others living in Britain during the Blitz, she is bravely continuing to press on despite the nightly threat of death from the skies.
As the novel opens in September 1940, Nazi Germany has swept through the Low Countries all the way to Paris, and the Battle of Britain is underway. The British people are gearing up for a German invasion. Every night hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers, accompanied by German fighter planes, swarm across the Channel and dump thousands of tons of bombs on Britain’s cities.
The American Agent (Maisie Dobbs #15) by Jacqueline Winspear (2019) 384 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Only the heroic efforts of RAF Fighter Command offer effective resistance. The young pilots—most of them eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years old—are Britain’s heroes; they die in droves. But soon the world will wake up to just how effective they have been. When Hitler calls off the planned invasion later in September 1940, it will be largely because the RAF had robbed the Luftwaffe of command of the skies. Because as many British pilots had been lost in the fighting, the Germans had lost many more.
Life goes on in Britain during the Blitz
Yet life goes on, even in London. Maisie is preoccupied with her application to adopt a five-year-old refugee girl named Anna. She nervously awaits word from the Ministry of Health for the date of an interview she’ll have to pass to gain permission. Meanwhile, Maisie and her friend, Priscilla Partridge, have volunteered as ambulance drivers. At least four nights each week, they venture out into the clamor of falling bombs and antiaircraft fire to haul the wounded to hospitals. And yet, all the while, her thriving practice continues.
Then the war intrudes unexpectedly. Robbie MacFarlane, Maisie’s erstwhile collaborator at MI6 in adventures past, descends on her to take on a case with sensitive overtones. A young American woman named Catherine Saxon who was on the cusp of becoming one of “Murrow’s boys” broadcasting by radio to the American public has been brutally murdered. And the British government must tread lightly because an American agent, Mark Scott, has been assigned to the case. Maisie’s assignment is to work closely with Scott and, at all costs, avoid upsetting her government’s ongoing campaign to draw the Americans into the war. But her job becomes complicated when Scott proves to have little interest in the case. Instead, he spends increasingly large amounts of time on mysterious errands that rouse Maisie’s suspicion.
Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, America First, and Edward R. Murrow
Soon, Maisie and her assistant, Billy Beale, find that the murder they’re investigating is far more complex than they could ever have imagined. Catherine Saxon was the daughter of a powerful American Senator who is among the leaders of the America First movement and a close friend of the pro-German American Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy. And Maisie has reason to suspect that one or more of the women in the house where the victim was living might have had their own reasons to be rid of Saxon.
In The American Agent, Jacqueline Winspear vividly portrays Britain during the Blitz. It’s difficult not to follow Maisie and Priscilla as they maneuver their ambulance through the cratered streets of London and not gain a feeling of what life must have been like as the bombs fell on the British capital. And she shows a fine appreciation for the political undertones of the cross-Atlantic relationship, understanding that Britain had suffered the brunt of Nazi power for more than two years before the United States entered the war.
Winspear enlivens her story by interspersing passages from the radio broadcasts of the legendary Edward R. Murrow, which convey as well as any work of fiction the courageous struggle of the British people during the Blitz.
For additional reading
I’ve reviewed all The Maisie Dobbs novels from Jacqueline Winspear.
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