With Hitler raining destruction and terror on London in 1940, psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs and her friend Priscilla Partridge work as ambulance drivers, accompanied one night by Catherine Saxon, a young American reporter.
The next day, Catherine is found dead in her flat, her throat slit, and Maisie is recruited to investigate. Assisting her is Mark Scott, an American assigned to the U.S. Embassy in London. He once saved Maisie’s life, but he’s also someone whose trustworthiness Maisie doubts and whose secretive ways puzzle her.
Welcome to “The American Agent” (Harper, $27.99, 384 pages), the 15th entry in Jacqueline Winspear’s series featuring Maisie. Catherine’s father, Sen. Clarence Saxon, preaches isolationism as a fellow traveler in Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement. And among the officials at the American embassy is Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, a defeatist and appeaser.
Maisie’s investigation takes her among Catherine’s housemates, her best friend from college who now lives in London, an American airman who flies for Britain, and various others, some potential suspects, others information providers.
Meanwhile, Maisie and Priscilla face worrisome personal issues as Winspear builds this emotionally fraught tale to its rewarding conclusion.
The factual requirements of sequential historical fiction have changed the path of the author’s work from a singular focus on crime to a blended one that includes war. The trajectory of her achievement continues to rise as Winspear melds homicide with strife, and in so doing intrigues the mind, batters the heart and shocks the conscience.
The best yet of a superior series, this installment again showcases Winspear’s brilliance and Maisie’s humanity. A masterful whodunit as well as a vivid and heart-rending war story, it offers a moving meditation on courage, endurance and resilience.
FUSION OF FACT AND FICTION
One’s a schemer. One’s a naif. But which is the murderer?
Elizabeth Fremantle explores the question in her latest historical novel, “The Poison Bed” (Pegasus, $25.95, 416 pages).
A pleasing fusion of fact and fiction, it tells the story of Robert and Frances Carr and the murder of which both were suspects during the reign of King James I in the early 17th century. The victim is Sir Thomas Overbury, whose opinions of handsome Robert and lovely Frances are diametrically different.
Frances belongs to the infamous Howard family (two of whose earlier products, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, were wives ordered beheaded by King Henry VII). Robert has risen from being “a nobody … who had been taken in as a page to someone on the fringes of court” to a confidant, aide and lover to the king.
But Robert, whose orientation initially seems strongly same-sex, falls hard for Frances, who reciprocates his feelings. Trapped in an abusive marriage, she longs for Robert while Thomas wastes away in custody.
With alternating “Him” and “Her” chapters, Fremantle elucidates events past and present that lay the groundwork for the dual shocks she delivers as her story reaches its climax.
A breathtakingly vivid exploration of sex, love, power, ambition and trickery, “The Poison Bed” offers a tantalizing look at England under the first Stuart king. With authenticity born of Fremantle’s research, narrative skills that amplify her storyline and characters viewed with an eye that gazes, but with sympathy, it shivers with suspense in the finest traditions of historical fiction.
AN INTELLIGENT WHODUNIT
When women are murdered, the guilty party often is a husband, a boyfriend, an ex or someone else known to the victims. And such killings often draw fleeting attention before vanishing from the public consciousness.
But Harper McClain, a Savannah newspaper reporter, won’t let the fatal shooting of an acquaintance, law student and bartender Naomi Scott, go unsolved in “A Beautiful Corpse” (Minotaur, $26.99, 336 pages), Christi Daugherty’s follow-up to last year’s “The Echo Killing.”
The cops think they have their man in Wilson Shepherd, a fellow law school classmate and Naomi’s beau. But two other suspects with histories of stalking exist: Naomi’s boss at the bar, Jim Fitzgerald, and Peyton Anderson, the son of a former district attorney who sits on the board of the paper for which Harper works.
What follows is a captivating work of crime fiction that doubles as a newspaper drama featuring the eternal struggle between newsrooms and bean counters. Daugherty, a former newspaper reporter, invests this intelligent whodunit with her own experience, furthers her development of Harper’s story and depicts the uneasy relationship between journalists and cops with a clear eye.
A worthy sequel and a probable predecessor to a third adventure featuring Harper, “A Beautiful Corpse” stands as a work of genre excellence.