Novelist Jacqueline Winspear’s “The American Agent,” set in 1940 England as nightly attacks by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe all but incinerate London, is the 15th entry in her bestselling Maisie Dobbs series and was partly inspired by family stories the author heard growing up in Kent. The twisty plot challenges the psychologist-detective heroine to puzzle out the kind of meaty, principled questions readers savor — while dodging bombs and driving ambulances with witty BFF Priscilla across London during the Blitz, drawing case maps with streetwise Eastender Billy Beale, and hopping trains to visit her horse-grooming father. Winspear will discuss the book at Vroman’s Monday.
Evocatively written, intelligent and frankly addictive, the series began with 2003’s Agatha Award-winning “Maisie Dobbs” — Winspear’s “first-ever fiction” — set in the years before and after World War I, when Maisie matured from impoverished teenage maid to nurse, shellshock victim, and independent investigator. At that time, Winspear found the book “shelved all over the place” in bookstores and libraries, even in political and anti-war fiction. As the page-turning series has since progressed, it has insightfully reflected women’s changing social roles and sexual mores amid shifting tides of war, and explored class differences, ethics in wartime, racism, opioid addiction and other issues with contemporary resonance. But its murder-solving books are generally confined to the mystery section, separate from “literary” fiction.
“Some of the best writing today is being done within what people call the mystery genre,” Winspear declares from the Bay Area, where she now lives. “It’s touching on political matters, social, environmental — all the key things. But it’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end; it’s got a plot. There’s nothing wrong with having a plot. …
“Do I think there is any level of snobbery against mystery fiction? Yes, I do. And I think it is incredibly misplaced because mystery sells very well for a good reason. It is representative of a very traditional form of storytelling, no matter how adventurous or cutting edge it might be. And that goes right back to the myths and legends; they were in a way mysteries because they represent the archetypal journey through chaos and resolution … I think there’s something in the rhythm of mystery that people are drawn to.”
It does not seem accidental that mysteries have enjoyed surging creative growth and popularity as the world has grown more politically uncertain. Readers crave more than the hearty “cuppa” tea Maisie’s often “gasping” for. Winspear agrees.
“I write about times of world war; it doesn’t get more tumultuous than war, plus the mystery. The conflict comes from seeing that there are courses of resilience and endurance, and that people go through all of that and they endured. … You close the book, and you have not only been entertained, but you have been reassured.”
The Maisie Dobbs series is a character-driven exemplar of the historical mystery subgenre, which at its best can illuminate dynamics and roots of contemporary troubles. (Background baddie Oswald Mosley’s speeches read like pro-Brexit screeds.) What makes the series gripping is intuitive Maisie, whose profound empathy is grounded in meditation, and Winspear’s research, which makes the past feel present and her relatable characters’ everyday worries as tangible as broken glass underfoot outside a bomb-blasted shop. Historic specificity gives an electric charge to the tension escalating through the series’ last three books, and intensifies the stakes of “The American Agent”; one storyline arose from recently declassified information about a notorious US politician.
The book resurrects the mysterious Mark Scott, whom Maisie first greeted with a revolver to his neck in 2016’s “Journey to Munich”; here, his wisecracking panache prompts comparisons to Clark Gable. “From the time he walked into the story in ‘Journey to Munich,’ I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t think we’ve done with him yet,’” Winspear explains with a laugh. “I think I’ve got a crush on him.”
Scott’s return intersects with “soft propaganda” campaigns that were carried out in real life by the American and British governments, and which lurk at the core of Maisie’s murder investigation. The briskly paced tale is peppered with excerpts from Edward R. Murrow’s legendary London broadcasts during the Blitz, a reminder of the lifeline BBC radio represented for pre-internet audiences and the political skill with which Franklin D. Roosevelt maneuvered around “America First” isolationists.
“History is like fashion: it comes around again, it just looks a bit different,” Winspear quips. “There have been several times when I have seen that in stark relief. One of them was when I went to Munich for my ‘Journey to Munich’ research. …
“Munich was really the home to German publishing — over 200 publishers. Hitler slowly but surely started closing them all down because he didn’t like what they were saying, especially the newspapers. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened on the site of a WWI munitions factory, and the first people there were not Jews, specifically; they were the editors of newspapers and magazines — [what Nazis considered] ‘fake news.’ People will hate me for saying that, but let us just say that I did not go out to make parallels to today. History does that for me.”
Winspear, who’ll be back in town for a Pasadena Literary Alliance Open Book event May 9, calls herself a “master puppeteer … moving characters through time” as they negotiate air raid sirens, barrage balloon shadows, ration cards, romance, and the nexus of personal and professional relations. She says she knows “where Maisie wants to go,” but now she’s busily promoting “The American Agent” and the simultaneously published “What Would Maisie Do? Inspiration From the Pages of Maisie Dobbs,” a collection of 30 of the character’s sage comments, arranged with illustrated pages that invite journaling.
“I absolutely respect and am incredibly grateful for their kinship,” Winspear says of her devoted readership. “One of the things that literature can do is to give a sense of community, because we become a part of characters’ lives, especially in a series. We care about them. Especially in these times when people don’t live in the communities that they used to live in, to see people living in community with each other, especially when it gets down to rural areas — there’s a real comfort in that.”
Jacqueline Winspear discusses “The American Agent” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Monday, April 8; free admission. Anyone wanting a book signed must purchase a copy in the store. Info: (626) 449-5320. jacquelinewinspear.com, whatwouldmaisiedo.com, vromansbookstore.com