The American Agent is the latest in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels centred around her private investigator, Maisie Dobbs. This series, which begins in the late 1920s, has now reached September 1940 and, the so-called ‘phoney war’ over, London is being hit night after night, by the bombing raids of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Maisie and her friend Priscilla Partridge, both of whom served in France during the First World War, are now working during the hours of darkness as an ambulance crew, ferrying the injured to hospital through the blackouts and the chaos caused by the falling munitions. On one such night a young American reporter comes out with them. Catherine Saxon, the youngest child of influential parents, has defied her father’s wishes (girls, after all, are only good for dynastic marriages) and come to Europe in the hope of finding herself a regular spot as a wireless correspondent. After time spent in Spain and Berlin, she is now writing pieces designed to encourage America to enter the war in support of those opposing the rise of Nazism and one such has been commissioned for the medium she hopes to conquer. However, the next morning Maisie finds herself being approached by her old friend, Robbie MacFarlane, currently working in a rather more secret branch of law enforcement, with the news that Cath has been murdered and seeking her help in tracking down the killer. Maisie’s task is complicated by the involvement of American interests in the shape of Mark Scott, clearly working within a rather different remit to hers but nevertheless the US State Department’s man on the spot. She and Scott have run into each other before, in Berlin, and there is tension between them not only because there is an obvious physical attraction, but also because Scott seems never able to be open about just who he is working for and what his precise purpose might be. This is certainly the case here. While he definitely wants to know what is going on in the investigation, that is clearly not his main reason for being in London and both Maisie and the reader are left guessing just what his presence in the city is really all about.
I have read very mixed reviews of this, the fifteenth book in the series. It is longer than most of the others and some reviewers have felt that it was slow to get off the mark, one suggesting that it could well lose the first hundred pages, which mainly deal with the terrors of facing the blitz night after night. While I concede that the main storyline is perhaps not as clear cut as it might be, the investigation into Cath’s death and Maisie’s concern as to just what Scott is up to and whether or not he can be trusted don’t mesh well together, I thought this book was excellent in the way in which Winspear’s novels so often excel, namely in painting a picture of what life was like for the ordinary individual, especially the poor of London’s East End, during the difficult years of the 1930s and on into those early years of the war. I wouldn’t have lost a word of those first hundred pages because they capture the terror of events and the resilience of the general populace in the months from September through to the end of the year, magnificently. Furthermore, they are essential to the main historical point that Winspear is addressing, namely the pressure being put on American correspondents by influential Isolationists to minimise in their reporting, the devastation facing not just London, but many other towns and cities throughout Britain, and the true threat of the Third Reich to world peace. In many instances these people were driven not so much by a desire to keep their countrymen out of a European war but by entirely more personal reasons to do with their stock holdings in German companies. Chief amongst these is a character only peripheral to Winspear’s narrative but in no way peripheral to what was happening in respect of the Isolationist cause, the American Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy. I was still in primary school when his son, John, was elected President and, like many young people, I was won over by the charisma, but my parents were always very wary of him. For their generation, the name Kennedy was still pretty much a dirty word.
As usual, Winspear also explores the way in which larger events impact on her main characters. Will Maisie’s eldest godson survive his time as an RAF pilot and what will happen to the youngest when he reaches an age where he will have to publicly defend his pacifist standpoint? It is clear, too, that she is looking forward to later wartime events; her assistant, Billy Beale, is at the moment pleased that his eldest is stationed in Singapore. That isn’t going to last. I hope that when/if she does tackle the horrors of what happened to those who were present at the fall of Singapore she acknowledges that there were prisoners other than those who were sent into Burma to work on the railways, prisoners who suffered just as much. It always amuses me when commentators talk about how little we know now concerning North Korea. My father could have told you quite a lot about it, having spent three and a half years in the country after being shipped out of Singapore to the carbide factories there by the Japanese in the summer of 1942 .
So, perhaps not the greatest of Winspear’s crime novels, but I think still very well worth reading and one that will spark a lot of memories for those of us who have some personal connection with the events that form the backdrop to the main narrative.