Monday, July 8, 2019

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

In Maisie Dobbs' world, it is the autumn of 1940 and London is suffering under Hitler's vaunted blitzkrieg. Most of Europe has fallen to Germany's onslaught and Britain now stands alone in opposing them. Churchill's "few," the RAF, are doing their heroic best to counter the blitz, and, in this effort, they are being helped by many American fliers who have come to join their fight. 

Back in America, the isolationists, led by people like Charles Lindberg, still hold sway. FDR, sympathetic to the British cause, does all he can to aid them, but he is unable to actually send troops.

Other Americans, particularly journalists, have also come to aid the British. Their aid is in the form of reporting events back to their country and giving their fellow Americans a bird's-eye view of what is happening under the blitz. Of course, the most famous of these was Edward R. Murrow, but in Jacqueline Winspear's telling, there is also a young woman journalist called Catherine Saxon. She will figure prominently in this story.

The American ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, is an isolationist with an affinity for the German cause. In time we learn that there is an American agent working directly for the president who is keeping an eye on Kennedy's activities. This agent is named Mark Scott and he is known to Maisie. She met him in Munich when she was sent there on special assignment by her government.

Maisie and her best friend, Priscilla, both of whom were nurses in France during the first world war, are now volunteering as ambulance drivers in London and they make their way around bombed out buildings and streets to retrieve the injured and deliver them to hospitals.

Meanwhile, Maisie also continues her efforts to adopt the little girl, Anna, whom she took in after she was orphaned in the previous book.

Against that background, Maisie is contacted by her friend from British intelligence, Robert MacFarland, and requested to work a murder case. It seems that the young American journalist, Catherine Saxon, has been found dead in her flat, a murder victim. Since she was an American, Maisie is asked to work the investigation with Mark Scott as a representative of the American embassy.

The investigation quickly becomes entangled in American politics (Catherine's father is an isolationist senator and her older brother is an aspiring politician) and in the propaganda efforts to sway American opinion. Maisie is suspicious of Mark Scott's role in the investigation but at the same time feels herself attracted to him.

Winspear's descriptions of London under the Blitz and of the bravery and stoicism of ordinary people were particularly strong parts of her narrative. Moreover, the death of Saxon was an intriguing mystery that had a rather unexpected conclusion. The plot was well executed and the characters were mostly likable people that we wanted to see survive and do well.

One thing that irks me about these novels is the dialogue. It always seems stilted. But what do I know? Maybe that is actually the way people talked then. Overall, this latest entry was one of the strongest in the series and one of my favorites.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

2 comments:

  1. I have a friend who has read every book in this series and loves them. I have only read the first one but it is on my list of series to read if I ever get through Daniel Silva and Nevada Barr. This one is especially interesting to me because I have read so much fiction from those years. Actually, as long and sometimes tedious as it was, I learned much about the Blitz and how it was handled from those two books by Connie Willis: Black Out/All Clear.

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    1. It's certainly a fraught period of history and there is undoubtedly much we could learn from it. If only we would.

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