In her previous novels featuring private investigator Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear showed readers a nation --- and a woman --- still deeply scarred by the effects of the Great War. Maisie's early outings involved looking backward a lot, both by investigating unsolved questions from the First World War and by reflecting on her own losses and invisible scars.
Now, in her eighth novel, Winspear crafts a story that still looks backward but, beyond that, looks forward to the political movements that will eventually give rise to the Second World War. Maisie, still reeling from the loss of her mentor, Maurice Blanche, is (thanks in large part to his generosity) more financially comfortable than she's ever been. She's been able to purchase a property in one of London's burgeoning suburbs and rent it to her assistant Billy, who's been desperate to move his family away from the slums. She has also hired Sandra, a grieving young widow, to provide much-needed secretarial support for the office.
Sandra's and Billy's assistance is needed more than ever, as Maisie has been contacted by the British Secret Service to help with a top-secret investigation at a new college at Cambridge University. Maisie's academic credentials can get her a faculty posting in the philosophy department, and the Secret Service hopes that her investigative skills can help them discover if the college is, as they suspect, fomenting anti-British sentiments.
Founded by Greville Liddicote, a man who wrote an anti-war children's book that has since been banned in Britain (in part because it supposedly prompted mutinies among British troops during WWI), St. Francis College focuses on peace studies and actively recruits students and faculty from throughout Europe --- including Britain's World War I enemies. When Liddicote is murdered during one of Maisie's first days at the college, her investigation becomes simultaneously more urgent and more complicated. She soon discovers that many of her fellow teachers are harboring secrets or hiding past lives, not to mention current activities and sympathies.
Maisie's investigations into the nascent Nazi Party activities in the United Kingdom --- activities that seem more ominous to Maisie than to her Secret Service superiors --- will appear all the more foreboding to readers who know where all this is leading. Meanwhile, even as Maisie is juggling the investigation with weekly commutes between Cambridge and London, her personal life is causing its own set of complications.
A LESSON IN SECRETS seems to be the start of an important new chapter in Maisie Dobbs's personal life and career. More independent than ever before, Maisie strives to balance new and often disorienting professional responsibilities with her personal ones, to understand the rapidly changing shape of the world, and to find time --- and space in her heart --- for love. The forward-looking focus of Winspear's latest will be exciting for her many fans, who will be eager to accompany Maisie on what promises to be an intriguing, dangerous and sobering journey.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 28, 2011