Cover image of "The Consequences of Fear," a book about British intelligence

Twelve-year-old Freddie Hackett is the fastest runner in his school and has secured a job as a nighttime courier for British intelligence. As the bombs fall all over London, Freddie runs from one site to another through the rubble-strewn streets. And on one such run on October 3, 1941 he witnesses a brutal murder committed by a man with memorable scars on his face. Later, when delivering his message nearby, he must hand it over to none other than the killer. But it’s a dark night, illuminated only by the moon, and Freddie is a child, after all. Nobody believes him. Still, he persists. And when word reaches Maisie Dobbs’ assistant, Billy Beale, the man knows something is up. Soon, Maisie is on the case.

Maisie is working now for British intelligence

For Maisie, though, investigating the murder Freddie saw is just one of several demands on her time. Now in her early forties, the “psychologist and investigator” is working on call for Robbie MacFarlane in the Special Operations Executive. Her job is to interview candidates for insertion as espionage agents on the Continent. She’s required to certify that, even after they’ve successfully made their way through the rigorous training, they’re fully prepared psychologically for the risks ahead. Meanwhile, her three-year-old adoptive daughter, Anna, is living at home with Maisie’s father and mother-in-law in Kent. Maisie feels constant guilt at her inability to spend full-time with the charming little girl. And all the while she’s carrying on an increasingly passionate affair with an American embassy official named Mark Scott. Despite the fact that the murder Freddie witnessed somehow involves British intelligence, she can’t afford to overlook everything else in her life.

In The Consequences of Fear, the sixteenth entry in the Maisie Dobbs series, Jacqueline Winspear skillfully follows all these threads of her heroine’s story for the two months between Freddie’s discovery and December 7, 1941.

The Consequences of Fear (Maisie Dobbs #16) by Jacqueline Winspear (2021) 348 pages ★★★★☆

Image of Special Operations Executive agents in France, working for British intelligence
This photo of SOE agents in southern France in 1944 includes only men, but many women served with great distinction as well. Image: Imperial War Museum via Wikipedia

An intriguing cast of characters

Readers of the earlier entries in Maisie’s story will be familiar with most of the characters in this novel.

Maisie’s work life

  • Billy Beale, a wounded veteran of the trench war in World War I who has taken on an ever-larger share in the agency’s investigative work.
  • Robbie MacFarlane, a senior official in Scotland Yard’s Special Branch detailed to the newly-formed Special Operations Executive (SOE). There, he vets and trains agents for service behind the lines in France and elsewhere in Europe. Maisie has been working for British intelligence since 1938, “when she accepted an assignment that took her to Munich.”
  • Detective Chief Superintendent Caldwell, Maisie’s principal contact at Scotland Yard, now consumed with confronting a wave of crime. (As Billy observes to Maisie, “This looting is terrible—and according to a couple of the coppers I know, they say it’s all getting worse and the government bods are keeping it on the q.t. because they don’t want it in the press that crime is getting out of hand. They just want everyone to carry on thinking that we’re all working together.” This observation is just one of many ways Winspear conveys an unfamiliar but historically accurate picture of London during the war.)

Maisie’s family and friends

  • Frankie and Brenda Dobbs, her father and mother-in-law, who now live in the grand country house Maisie inherited from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche.
  • Wealthy Priscilla Partridge and her three now grown-up sons, Tom, Tarquin, and Tim
  • Lord Julian and Rowan Compton, parents of her late husband. When Maisie was young, they had discovered her exceptional intelligence while working for them “in service.” (Maisie’s formal name is now Lady Margaret Compton, but she uses the title only when needed to get attention from people who might otherwise ignore her.)

Much of the pleasure of reading the books in this series comes from visiting these interesting people as they age. The Consequences of Fear updates their stories, taking them through the final two months before the United States was forced to join Great Britain in the war.

A word about the title

Often, a novel’s title is merely a clever phrase drawn from some literary or Biblical source. That’s not the case here. The Consequences of Fear is, throughout, about the many varieties of fear that affect civilians and soldiers alike in wartime. Maisie confronts it in Freddie Hackett’s fear of his violent father, in his long-abused mother, in the people Maisie meets who must live amidst the falling bombs, in the young RAF pilots like her godson Tom Partridge, and in the candidates she vets for British intelligence.

“For a good agent,” she reflects, “fear seemed to linger on a balance beam. If it was kept plumb in the center of the beam, fear would protect them; it would enhance their senses and alert them to danger. Fear could be an agent’s greatest asset. But if fear increased and tipped the balance too far in one direction, then it could paralyze an agent, lead to ill-considered decisions, panic, and errors that might risk the lives of others and result in their own death.”

And Maisie herself is, of course, not immune from the tentacles of fear. “Had there ever been a time when she felt the clutch of fear in her gut loosen its grip, so that she could have faith in the future?”

For more reading

I’ve reviewed all the previous novels in the Maisie Dobbs series. You can find capsule descriptions and links to my individual reviews at The Maisie Dobbs novels from Jacqueline Winspear.

For other novelists’ take on the war years, see The 10 best novels about World War II (with 30+ runners-up).

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