A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

A Lesson in Secrets  (Maisie Dobbs, #8)A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This eighth entry in the Maisie Dobbs series was a bit slow getting started and there were parts of it that didn't ring true for me, that seemed a bit "off" - I'm not quite sure how else to explain it - so, on the whole, I can't say it is one of my favorites. Still, it wasn't a stinker. It just wasn't as entertaining as some.

This book actually marks a bit of a turning point in the series. Up until now, the focus has been on the events of World War I and the years following that war. Now, we have arrived at the 1930s and Maisie herself is in her 30s and is a successful businesswoman. There is unrest in Germany. The Nazis and their leader Adolf Hitler are near to being able to take over the country and the philosophy espoused by Hitler is finding adherents in other countries as well. Including England.

In the beginning, Maisie finds herself being followed and determines that it is the police doing the following. Why? Well, she soon has her answer. The Special Branch wants to recruit her for intelligence work and the surveillance is a kind of test to see how observant she is.

Dobbs eventually meets with the government's representatives and they explain what they want her to do. They want her to go undercover as an instructor at a college established by a well-known pacifist. The goal of the college is to bring young people from different countries and backgrounds together to encourage dialogue and to foment peace in the world. However, the intelligence service suspects that there may be something more going on at the college, something that may be a threat to the Crown.

Maisie accepts the assignment and becomes a lecturer in philosophy at the college and soon learns that there are stresses and strains in the relationships among the staff there. She also finds that there are admirers of Hitler present at the college.

Meantime, back at her other business, her assistant Billy is carrying the load. That includes investigating the supposedly accidental death of the husband of Sandra, a friend and associate from Maisie's past. Billy is stressed because his wife is expecting their fourth child, after the death of the third child about a year before, and he and his family are living in a slum and he needs to get them into healthier living quarters. And here's one of my quibbles with these books. Maisie is condescending toward her assistant. She often treats him like he's not very smart, although he gives every evidence of being quite bright and street-smart, as well as a very responsible husband and father. He deserves better from her.

Maisie's investigation at the college proceeds more or less smoothly. Then, the head of the college is unexpectedly murdered. Is this related somehow to the matters that Maisie is investigating?

The plot of this novel was kind of all over the place and included a line regarding Maisie's romantic relationships. She is having an affair with James Compton, the son of the family that she worked for as a maid when she was a teenager. Meantime, a colleague from the police with whom she works, Richard Stratton, also carries a torch for her and, to this reader at least, seems a much better match for Maisie. Frankly, I find the Compton relationship a bit unbelievable.

Still another strand of the plot involves Maisie's aging father, who now seems to have his own romantic involvement, Maisie tends to try to order her father's life as well. She's actually a busybody in the lives of people she cares about. Her attitude is she knows best what is good for them, regardless of their opinions in the matter.

Overall, I didn't really feel engaged by the plot of this book. It was too muddled for my taste. But I do care about the main characters and so I kept reading to see where it was going. In the end, I didn't feel that the story moved any of the characters that much forward, but at least now we have arrived beyond the immediate post-World War I period. Interesting times are ahead. I wonder what Winspear will do with them.

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  1. I'm impressed that the author has been able to keep such a long series going. I get discouraged about finishing even one novel, let alone making a series out of it. Historical periods like a World War do make a good backdrop. It's a bit like choosing "hardscape" material for the garden. It gives you a sturdy skeletal structure to flesh out.

    1. That's an excellent analogy. I think it always helps to have that background structure on which to build - either in gardening or writing.


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