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).