Book Review: The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear
By Susan AmperMarch 27, 2019
The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear is the 15th installment of the Maisie Dobbs series, and now Maisie must balance her dangerous new case while her own feelings of love and grief threaten to overwhelm her.
Intrepid investigator Maisie Dobbs drives an ambulance during the London Blitz, investigates a sensitive case of murder, hopes to adopt an orphan, and maybe falls in love again. The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear is the 15th in the series, and Maisie has come a long way since her debut in 2003. Maisie’s story started during the horrifying First World War and continues in this latest entry at the start of the second.
If you’re new to this terrific series, you might get thee to a library and catch up as quite a lot has happened to Maisie in the many years the novels cover. Here’s a brief overview to catch you up. Maisie started her working life as a maid for Lady Rowan Compton, who soon noticed how bright and how interested in books she was. She became a patron of sorts. Maurice Blanche, a celebrated investigator, becomes her mentor. Maisie attends the prestigious Girton College in Cambridge where she meets her best bud Priscilla Partridge. In 1914, war breaks out, and Maisie becomes a nurse and loses her first love to shell shock. After the war, she opens her own investigative firm. When Maurice dies, he leaves Maisie his fortune. Soon she moves into the aristocracy when she marries the Comptons’ only son James, who dies in a plane crash soon after which Maisie miscarries their baby.
Maisie has now settled back into her private inquiry business; she and Priscilla are volunteer ambulance drivers during the Blitz. They meet Catherine Saxon, an American reporter hoping to get a spot on the Edward R. Murrow show. She rides along with the two for an evening hoping for a story, which she gets and reports. But they soon discover her murdered, and the British authorities conceal the news of her death. Maisie is asked by Robert McFarlane, who has ties to Scotland Yard and the Secret Service, to help in the investigation along with Mark Scott, of the U. S. Department of Justice, and the American who helped Maisie escape Hitler’s Germany in 1938.
Mark Scott explains the reality of the current war in 1940 America. “President Roosevelt leans toward some sort of financial assistance over and above that which has already been promised. [Senator] Saxon is what you might call an ‘isolationist.’ He does not want any entanglements with the Nazis, and if that means leaving Britain to fix the good fight alone until the invasion—so be it. He is on the side of doing business with Herr Hitler if it comes to that.”
Joseph Kennedy is the American Ambassador in London during this time. Billy McBride, Maisie’s assistant, tells her what Fleet Street has been saying about Kennedy. “For a start, when war was declared, he apparently said that Hitler would be in Buckingham Palace within two weeks, and even before that he was being very friendly toward old Adolf, making what they call ‘overtures.’ He never expected our boys to beat the Luftwaffe in the air, so that’s another strike against him.”
Readers get an almost “you are there” feel from chapters which are headed by transcripts of radio programs by Edward R. Murrow among others. One of the British broadcasters explains the effect of these radio updates. “You can see why [Murrow’s] getting a reputation over there, can’t you?” and “I mean, we think he’s a good bloke here, but there’s some people on the other side of the Atlantic who don’t like the way he tells a story. He goes straight to the heart of it, see. Every time he broadcasts, the American listening can hear what’s happening on the streets of London—he tells it so they can see it.”
And what they hear and see is the brutal blitz that takes down whole blocks of residences and causes families to move their children to the countryside.
Priscilla’s son, Tim Partridge, lost an arm at the Battle of Dunkirk. Since that date, he has been beastly to his mother because he recognizes that he needs to find his place now that his dreams of a career in the navy are gone. But not until Maisie and Priscilla get bombed and Priscilla is close to death does Tim come to recognize bravery and courage. As he stands outside her hospital room with Maisie, Tim asks her, “Do you think they’re happier without me?”
Maisie looked through the window. Douglas was seated on one side of the bed, with Tarquin on the other. One side of Priscilla’s face and head was bandaged, and a cage had been placed over her left leg, to relieve the weight of a blanket.
“Never in a million years, Tim.” She looked up at the young man, who was now almost as tall as his father. “I’ve never told you this, but I hope you know that you are your mother’s son in every way—you have become more like her with the years, and you have her sharp intelligence, her wit, her charm and you have every single ounce of her bravery.”
And when he sees her, Priscilla is all that is good and brave in a mother saying to Tim “Oh, my darling.”
Mother-love is one of the main themes of the novel and suggests that while surrounded by war and terror, hope is on the horizon.