‘The American Agent’ an intriguing look at war-torn London

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The new Maisie Dobbs mystery is in print, and if you are a fan of author Jacqueline Winspear, you’ll want to read “The American Agent.”

The “Bore War” is over – World War II is in full swing. London is being bombed nearly every night by the German Luftwaffe fliers while the British soldiers fight for their lives across Europe. Many Londoners have retreated to the country, but many can’t or they have chosen to stay to do what they can to help, risking their lives in the process. Some man anti-aircraft guns, others serve as firefighters to put out the fires the bombs start. Some of the women, like Maisie Dobbs and her best friend, Priscilla Partridge, drive ambulances through the streets, dodging debris in the dark of night with no headlights, to treat and transport the wounded to the hospitals. 

Some, like American reporter Catherine Saxon, cover the blitzkrieg and broadcast news of the destruction back across the Atlantic. Catherine uses searing details and a woman’s perspective to convey the horror the English are enduring at the hands of the Nazi Party. Catherine has two goals: first, to convince Americans how dangerous Germany is so the United States will aid Britain more, even to the point of entering the war; and second, to make her own name as a reporter and join “Murrow’s Boys,” the men working for Edward R. Murrow to spread the news to the world.

But Catherine’s life is taken and it wasn’t the result of the bombing. Robbie MacFarlane asks Maisie to put her unique skills as an investigator and psychologist to work for Scotland Yard and the Secret Service. It’s not the first time MacFarlane has asked for Maisie’s help, but because Catherine was an American and has ties to an important family overseas, he does ask her to work with Mark Scott again. Scott is the American who worked with Maisie when she was asked to do a job in Munich a while back. 

Finding Catherine’s killer is no easy task. Maisie and her assistant Billy Beale have to sort through all the reasons someone might want Catherine dead. Was it because of her work? Her family that didn’t want her ruining their good name by being a wayward daughter? Or had Catherine fallen in love with the wrong man?

Amidst the jumble of information, Maisie questions Scott’s involvement in the case and why he was really assigned to help her. Can she trust him?

As Maisie gets closer to the truth, she sees an opportunity to do in this case what she was not able to do in a previous one. But should she? Isn’t it enough to catch a killer or is Maisie’s personal life coloring her professional perspective?

As always, Winspear has Maisie solve the case with mental acumen, not forensics, but our favorite psychologist is older now and Winspear shows the strain Maisie is under and how it affects her personality, as well as her professional job. First, everyone is facing the stress of another war hitting home and knowing what devastation it brings. On the personal side, Maisie is facing a hearing regarding a young evacuee girl, Anna, and whether the child will be allowed to remain in her custody or not. Maisie is nervous that the hearing board will see her work – both professional and for the war effort – as too dangerous to be responsible for a child. And that fact hits home hard when Maisie faces losing another person very dear to her.

Winspear does an excellent job of showing what life was like for those who endured the bombing of London and how the English held the line for so long alone. From describing careening through the streets amongst destroyed and burning buildings, to taking shelter wherever they happened to be when the air raid sirens sounded, how women stepped in to do the jobs that needed to be done, right down to the rise of coffee consumption due to tea rationing and sleepless nights, Winspear colors the world of 1940.

Winspear also gives insight into all the effort the English were going to in order to get the Americans to help – in money and other support – including entering the war on the side of the Allies. There were powerful Americans who believed the United States was better off staying on its side of the Atlantic, even though many American men had already volunteered their services to the British. After all, the Great War – less than two decades past – was still fresh in the minds of many and quite a few were reluctant to get involved in another World War that could cost so much in lives.

Another nice touch is the mention of several real people from that time, among them legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow. See how many others you can recognize.

As a reporter myself, I appreciated the way Winspear portrayed the journalists and the work we do. She included real reports by Murrow, London’s Daily Express and the Chicago News from September of 1940, as well as the way she portrayed Catherine’s passion for telling the real, unvarnished truth of the bombings. Many people who write about reporters don’t bother to do any research and have no clue how or why we do our jobs.

Eric Sevareid, one of “Murrow’s Boys” who also reported from London and went on to become an acclaimed journalist in his own right, later wrote: “Murrow was not trying to sell the British cause to America. He was trying to explain the universal human cause of men who were showing a noble face to the world. … He made the British and their behavior human and thus compelling to his countrymen at home,” (uso.org/stories/180-edward-r-murrow-pioneer-on-the-front-lines).

And that is what Winspear does so well in her fiction: show how the humanness of men and women influence their actions.

If you’d like to read more about Maisie Dobbs, start at the beginning with “Maisie Dobbs” and read the entire 15 book series.

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