Maisie Dobbs: A Lesson in Secrets

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is the only series of mystery novels I’ve read in its entirety and that I make a point of keeping up with. I always enjoy them, although I don’t think they are top-notch novels. They are fun, but mostly I keep reading them because I want to find out what happens to the character, and I also find the process of reading through an entire series interesting. I like watching what happens to her over the years, the relationships that begin and end, the jobs that come and go, the ways her personality and experiences change. I like seeing just how much Winspear will develop her character over the course of one book and how she ends certain stories and begins new ones.

I also like seeing how Winspear deals with the changing historical context — the 1920s into the 1930s — and how that context shapes the mysteries Maisie attempts to solve. The earlier books focused on the lingering consequences of World War I, especially veterans suffering from war wounds, both physical and mental, that they couldn’t quite recover from. More recently, and especially in this latest book, Winspear is beginning to shift her focus onto the new conflict on its way, although World War I still plays an important role in the story. There is a heavy sense of foreboding in A Lesson in Secrets; the more perceptive characters are aware that the situation in Germany is looking more and more dangerous, and people are beginning to discuss Hitler and the Nazi party.

In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie is approached by the British Secret Service. They want her to take on a job teaching philosophy at a college in Cambridge to keep an eye on possibly subversive activity there. The college was founded with the goal of promulgating peace by bringing students from many different countries together. As will be no surprise to mystery readers, it’s not too long before someone gets murdered, at which point Maisie has two jobs — her original undercover work and her efforts to solve the murder. Her detective work leads her in interesting directions — she learns about a man who wrote young adult books espousing pacificism that were so powerful that disillusioned soldiers in the trenches of World War I stopped fighting. She also investigates students and staff from the college who attend pro-Nazi rallies in London. Maisie is worried that the Secret Service is not taking these meetings seriously enough.

I described her as having two jobs, but really, of course, she has three, which is the thing that drove me a little crazy about this book. In addition to her complicated detective work (there is another subplot about a missing friend, although she is not in charge of that investigation), she is becoming a teacher for the first time. I just could not believe that anybody could take up teaching quite as easily and naturally as Maisie does, all the while spending most of her time on her investigations. She has no worries or angst about what goes on in the classroom; she carries around a stack of papers, but doesn’t seem to spend much time reading them; and we don’t learn much about how and when she prepares for class. And this after being out of an academic environment for many years. Oh, and she gets the job very, very easily, although that may have been because of connections and the Secret Service pulling strings. But she only needs to spend a week or two preparing for her interview and her new classes, apparently having forgotten absolutely nothing of the curriculum from her Cambridge years.

This touches on something that has bothered me about Maisie before — she is just too perfect. Yes, she has flaws, but they feel fake — not really flaws, just struggles that come out of her poor childhood and her World War I nursing experiences. She would feel more human to me if she did stupid things occasionally, or if she forgot something important, or if her amazing intuitive powers failed her now and then.

But still, I enjoy reading these books, and they always give me things to think about, even, sometimes, if it’s thoughts about what didn’t work.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “Maisie Dobbs: A Lesson in Secrets

  1. It is the way in which Winspear explores the political, but much more importunely, for me at least, the social climate in England between the two wars that keeps me reading this series. I think she very good at bringing to life just how hard it was for millions of British people just to stay alive during that time. I wasn’t so bothered about the educational aspects of the book as you. I’m afraid that in many instances it really was as easy and the students as compliant at that time. Things have definitely changed!

  2. I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading these books as they are published and so I am rather behind on Maisie’s career! Perhaps one of the really interesting things narrative can do is show us the processes people go through, whether it’s falling in love, or negotiating loss, or learning a new skill. And so it’s easy to feel a bit short-changed when the character sidesteps the process and comes out all ready-made and problem-free. Well, I can imagine that being a factor in my own reading. :)

  3. I really wanted to like this series, but when I tried one of the books (out of order, maybe that was the problem), I just couldn’t get into it.

  4. I’m a fan of the series and almost always find some topic within the books worthy of more exploration. I like the time period and the personal touch the author gives important political issues. Can’t wait to see what I think of Maisie as teacher.

  5. What you’ve said in the first paragraph about character is so true; many of the mystery series I keep up with are not what you might call “top-notch novels,” but the author has made me care enough about the people that I can’t stop reading them. In the next month or so, a number of “next books” are coming, and I may just go into hiding so I can catch up with my favorites.

    The newest Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery by Anne Perry (out as of last Tuesday) has been three years in the making, and if Thomas doesn’t get re-promoted back to his former high position at the Yard, I’m going to be mighty annoyed. The book is on its way now, so I’ve cleared off the bedside table in anticipation.

  6. Maybe Maisie doesn’t have to sleep so she does all her class prep and paper grading while all the other characters are slumbering ;)

  7. I really appreciated your perspective of this book. I kind of made a note of her ease in getting the job and how easily she gets into the teaching mode. However, I didn’t give it a second thought. It does make Maisie seem a little too perfect and I’ll be interested to see if Winspear does make her a more vulnerable as the series goes on. I’d also like to see a prequeal in the series. Maybe even a couple…Maisie at school and under the tutelage of Maurice and Maisie on the war front.

  8. Glad you enjoyed it despite some of the flaws in the story–that’s how I feel, too, about a number of mystery series (similar to what Debby wrote). She does gloss over the teaching aspect, but I suppose that just got her to where Winspear needed to explore other social problems. Maisie is certainly formidable, isn’t she? I’ve been on a little mystery binge at the moment and am reading another book similar to this–in the setting only, though. I’ve been trying to at least vary my mysteries–there are endless books to choose from which is nice but also a little overwhelming!

  9. Annie — I agree about the political/social context as the most important and intriguing aspects of the series. Winspear does a great job, as you say, of showing what life was like. I like Billy’s story and his relationship with Maisie, and the reintroduction of Sandra worked well too.

    Litlove — I agree. Maisie does learn new things, but it happens in such a controlled way that it’s a little hard to believe. I’d like to see some messy learning processes now and then!

    Lilian — I started with audio books and that worked well for me. If I’d started with paper books, I might have been turned off because reading that way makes the lack of dazzling writing more obvious.

    Jenclair — I hope I haven’t influenced your impression of the book too much. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think! I agree that she connects the personal and the political very well.

    Debby — yay for the pleasure of a new Anne Perry book! I know how much you enjoy those :) It’s so satisfying to have one’s curiosity appeased, and I can understand why people get caught up in series. I should make sure I don’t start many more … they can be dangerous! I should just stick to Maisie Dobbs :)

    Stefanie — good theory! She doesn’t spend much time eating either; you could save a lot of time not preparing and cleaning up from meals! :)

    Mike B. — now that would be interesting. She told that story briefly in the first novel, but didn’t flesh it out much. Maisie did have some vulnerable moments, and I should acknowledge them, like the time she collapsed in France. But that’s just one instance! Still, I’m hooked on these novels, and I’ll keep reading them happily.

    Danielle — it is SO overwhelming. I’ve been reading with my mystery group for something like three years now, and we haven’t gotten near the end of the possibilities. I can understand why, plot-wise, Winspear made it so easy for Maisie to get and keep her job; it’s just hard when teaching something I do, and I don’t think I do nearly as good a job as she does! :)

  10. Margaret Powling

    Not looked in before, but glad I have, and how could I ignore a post on dear old – or perhaps that should be “young” – Maisie? I hadn’t thought about the difficulties of her teaching – when she might prepare her lessons, how she managed to get into teaching quite so easily – but yes, these are things which might’ve been more difficult than Maisie found them to be. But, come on folk, this is fiction. We do have to suspend belief sometime, otherwise there simply wouldn’t be a story. I’m only half way thought this book, had to break off to read something else, but will return to Maisie shortly and I know I shall enjoy it as much as the rest simply because Jacqueline Winsprear is such an excellent writer.
    Margaret P

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