A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear

Pub Date: March 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Books (Harper Collins)
FTC: Review copy provided by the publisher

Sometimes coming to a series in the middle just doesn't work. This was one of those times. Although many love Maisie Dobbs, the book just didn't click with me. Everything was off: pacing, characterization, dialogue. It all seemed way too passive for my reading preferences.

A Lesson in Secrets is set in the slim amount of time between World War I and World War II. In fact, the aftermath of the first Great War is very much a part of what drives this book. Maisie is an investigator of sorts who is asked by the Intelligence Service to investigate a school founded by an author made famous by a pacifist children's book.

Although most of the book is shown through Maisie's POV, we never really get a chance to get inside her head. There's very little emotion there. And the secondary characters never really felt fleshed out to me. I read for characters and those fell flat in nearly every instance. It was like I was reading an after-action report instead of following along with her. Very detached.

I think I might have enjoyed the book a bit more if I'd followed the series from the beginning, because Maisie references characters off-screen or in previous adventures. I'm not sure if Winspear depended too much on readers already knowing the characters, but most I just couldn't bring myself to care about at all.

Jacqueline Winspear's writing is very cerebral.  I prefer the visceral. But historical fiction fans might enjoy the way the time between the wars is shown with a subtle, heartbreaking touch. There's a lot to like here, but I just couldn't connect with it.

My Grade: C-

The Blurb:

In the summer of 1932, Maisie Dobbs's career takes an exciting new turn when she accepts an undercover assignment directed by Scotland Yard's Special Branch and the Secret Service. Posing as a junior lecturer, she is sent to a private college in Cambridge to monitor any activities, "not in the interests of His Majesty's Government."
When the college's controversial pacifist founder and principal, Greville Liddicote, is murdered, Maisie is directed to stand back as Detective Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane and Detective Chief Inspector Richard Stratton spearhead the investigation. She soon discovers, however, that the circumstances of Liddicote's death appear inextricably linked to the suspicious comings and goings of faculty and students under her surveillance.
To unravel this web, Maisie must overcome a reluctant Secret Service, discover shameful hidden truths about Britain's conduct during the Great War, and face off against the rising powers of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei the Nazi Party—in Britain.
As the storm clouds of World War II gather on the horizon, this pivotal chapter in the life of Maisie Dobbs foreshadows new challenges and powerful enemies facing the psychologist and investigator—and will engage new readers and loyal fans of this "outstanding" series (Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review).


  1. I have read the first five books in the series and love Maisie Dobbs. She's similar to Phrynne Fisher, except warmer and more human. I also love the sense of the time period and the historical detail in the series. You said the writing is "cerebral" but I would say that it's "introspective."

  2. @avoriana,

    I agree the time period and historical detail were excellent. Introspective would be a good description, too. This is the only Maisie Dobbs book I have read, so it could be that the characterization was better in the previous installments. This one just didn't work for me, but I can see how it would work for others.