Friday, July 22, 2011

Book review: A Lesson in Secrets, by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear’s eighth Maisie Dobbs mystery demonstrates the truth spoken by one of her characters: “One always has riches when one has a book to read.” This is my first outing with Maisie, who by 1932 is a successful private detective in London. Feeling that I ought to get up to speed with this award-winning series, I requested a copy of A Lesson in Secrets to review. Reading novels out of order doesn’t bother me; if an author does her job well, the order shouldn’t matter, plus starting with a later volume gets me interested in reading about the characters’ past histories, too.

Maisie’s outward sophistication belies her humble origins as a domestic servant to the aristocratic Comptons – a family whose son James is now Maisie’s beau. In the years following World War I, the social fabric of Britain has unraveled and re-formed. The political climate is likewise shifting, not necessarily for the better. At the request of the British Secret Service and Scotland Yard, Maisie takes a post as a junior lecturer in philosophy at a small Cambridge college that has been enrolling an unusual number of students from abroad. Her task is to keep her ear to the ground for any activities “not in the interests of the Crown.”

Greville Liddicote, the founder of St. Francis, has pacifist leanings, and his institution’s curriculum is grounded in his principles. A controversial children’s book he wrote during World War I turned many would-be soldiers into “Conchies” – conscientious objectors – and reportedly caused a mutiny on the front lines. (If this event ever occurred, that is. The British government has kept the truth under wraps.) When Liddicote is found murdered in his office, Maisie is asked to stick to her own investigation and let Special Branch do its job, but everything is closely entangled, of course. The more Maisie learns about her fellow instructors and their connections, the closer she comes to unveiling a murderer.

The plot of A Lesson in Secrets is not so much suspenseful as intellectually provocative. Although she is new on the faculty, Maisie’s natural ease with her peers and students gets them talking, and her inquiry is neatly worked into the history of the period. The Nazi party on the rise in Germany is attracting followers throughout Britain and Europe. Few besides Maisie are attuned to the threat it may pose.

For a newcomer to the series like me, Maisie seems a little too perfect at first: she can quickly discern a cause of death, conduct a well-received philosophy lecture with little preparation, and is remarkably aware of her surroundings. For her, success lies not just in what you know, but in who you know.  Over time, she has accumulated enough contacts who provide her with the information she seeks – even if it sometimes leads her up the wrong path.

Maisie is too wary of "happily ever after" endings for her romance with James to be smooth sailing, however, and episodes in her personal life still manage to surprise her.  The mix makes her an intriguing character, and I'm now curious about her transformation from servant to wartime nurse to PI. Her back story is well developed here, and the secondary characters are equally well crafted. Even her late mentor Maurice Blanche, who had left her enough funds in his will to make her financially independent, lives on the page as a close memory. I look forward to meeting him in person in Winspear’s earlier books.

A Lesson in Secrets was published in April by Harper ($25.99, 323pp, hardcover).


  1. Great review, Sarah. I recently read the first Maisie Dobbs book and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

  2. Thanks, Melissa - this is a series I'd been meaning to read for ages. I'm interested in seeing how her character develops from the first book on, because she seems to be so brilliant and accomplished here.

  3. Intriguing. I'll be interested to know what you think of the earlier books, too. :)

  4. I started reading Maisie Dobbs and I liked it a lot, except for her assistant, who annoyed me so much I stopped reading the series. There was just something about him. Maybe I should try once moe, your review has peaked my interest again.

  5. I have read this entire series so far and while it is not perfect, I do really enjoy it.. I don't read a lot of mystery series, but I look forward to every new release in this one.

  6. Lucy, I'm planning on starting from the beginning now (I have most of the other books) so will report back later on!

    Alex - her assistant stays in the background for most of this book, since Maisie is off in Cambridge on her own assignment. So if he annoys you, this may be a good time to come back to the series.

    Kailana, if this novel was representative of the series, it seems like these would be good choice for readers who don't normally read mysteries.

  7. I've always wanted to read this series, and now I think I'm going to just plunge in if I find a copy at the library.

  8. Great Review! I definitely want to read the series, although I think I will start with the first. I always like to start at the beginning of a series.
    Good Reading!
    Sarah MacAndrew

  9. Hi to another Sarah - there are a few of us around here! I either start with the first in a series or the most recent book. With Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge series (set about 15 years earlier) I did the same thing - reviewed the most recent one, then went back to read the series from the beginning.

    Elizabeth, I'd be interested in hearing what you think!