Book Review: The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

The American Agent
A Maisie Dobbs Novel #15
Jacqueline Winspear
Harper, March 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-243666-5

In this latest novel by Jacqueline Winspear set in London during the Second World War, her protagonist Maisie Dobbs, an investigator and psychologist, is asked by a long time friend Robert MacFarlane, who works in the Secret Service, to look into the murder of an American woman, Catherine Saxon. Catherine had been working as a reporter, intent on letting the American people read first hand about the horrific devastation and deaths caused by the German bombers.

The British authorities are keeping Catherine Saxon’s death under wraps, and are hoping Maisie with the help of Mark Scott, an American Agent she has worked with before, to find the murderer. Maisie had in fact met Catherine when she’d accompanied Maisie and her best friend Priscilla Partridge a few nights previously, as they’d worked their shift as volunteer ambulance attendants.

Over a period of weeks Maisie interviews the other occupants residing in the boarding house where Catherine lived and where her body was found. It’s a slow process and amid the nightly turmoil of bombings, progress is slow. Maisie also has other responsibilities, not the least being the welfare of a young child Anna, an evacuee she’s grown to love. Anna is meantime in the countryside being looked after by Maisie’s father and stepmother. But Maisie is anxious about the upcoming hearing with regard to her adoption of young Anna.

I’ve been reading the Maisie Dobbs novels since the first came out in 2003 and which won numerous awards. Maisie is a strong woman, she’s had to be, considering all she has gone through. She’s honourable, steadfast and caring, and has a unique way of investigating and uncovering the truth.

The background of the Blitz, as it was referred to, actually took place from November 1940 to May 1941 and the sense of danger and the relentless bombardment from the German Luftwaffe and their fighters makes for a tension filled story. It’s a difficult case and Maisie faces a number of challenges in her quest to uncover the killer.

While this book is the latest in a series, it isn’t vital that you read the previous books. But if you want to get to know Maisie Dobbs and her friends and family a little better…. then search them out.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, May 2019.

Book Review: A Cold Touch of Ice by Michael Pearce

A Cold Touch of IceA Cold Touch of Ice
A Mamur Zapt Mystery
Michael Pearce
Poisoned Pen Press, July 2004
ISBN: 1-59058-065-6

Michael Pearce is an unqualified success, if you like good characterizations, an exotic locale and a satisfying mystery that illuminates real history from the early part of the twentieth century.

Gareth Owen is the head of the secret service in Egypt. He is called the Mamur Zapt. It is an interesting position, in that he works for the Khedive, the ruler of Egypt. But he is British, because at the time of the novel, 1912, Egypt is a British protectorate. The Brits are in no way about to allow Egyptian police free rein to poke about in private affairs. Owen is an interesting character, urbane, very focused on Cairo, and not much on things like the desert and rural Egypt. Well, he has enough to do, it seems, Cairo being a central gathering place for agents and counter-agents of every stripe.

It is 1912 and Lord Kitchener has come to Egypt to assume the ruling hand. There are many tensions in the air, because, although America was blissfully unaware , war clouds were gathering and already attempts are being made to implant a German nation inside the Egyptian government. The Turks are at war with the Italians, increasing the pressure and destabilizing the normal tensions of the place. Then an Italian businessman, a long-time resident of Cairo, is murdered. Normally such an event is not in the Mamur Zapt’s purvue, but he is naturally acquainted with the local government authorities. When it becomes likely that the fighting in Tripolitania is somehow related to the murder, Owen is drawn in. More complications arise of both a professional and personal nature.

There is a wedding, there are disagreements within and without Owen’s personal life and we are made privy to some eternal prejudices which affect Owen and his colleagues. Yet there are no polemics here. The author’s matter-of-fact straightforward style draws us in and maintains the interest and the tension without resorting to devices like car chases and shootouts.

Pearce is a master at bringing to vibrant life in subtle and direct ways the life of turbulent Cairo from its high governmental maneuverings to common, everyday events. In the intense heat and dust of the city and the important camel caravan oases, Owen walks a slow steady path to motive and resolution. This is a fine police procedural with many excellent nuances.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Review: Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

Lincoln's Grave RobbersLincoln’s Grave Robbers
Steve Sheinkin
Scholastic Press, January 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-40572-0

As Mr. Sheinkin has just received the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award Winner, 2013 for his, Bomb: The Race to Build—And Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, I fully expected to enjoy his account of criminals’ complications that lead to an attempt to steal Lincoln’s body.  I was not disappointed.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers is a non-fiction, historical book perfectly suited to Middle Schoolers.  It is not; however, about robbing Lincoln’s grave.  It is about counterfeiting.   I admit, at a blush, I was skeptical.  Do today’s children even comprehend paper currency?  I quickly realized—it doesn’t matter.

Mr. Sheinkin did an outstanding job of “explaining” the counterfeiters’ process.  He covered the importance of the master engraver, the tricks of the trade and how the “coneys” became wealthy using this scheme. We better understand the necessity of a meticulous engraver, as we learn what lengths the “coneys” will go to free revered engraver, Benjamin Boyd, from prison.  When bribery doesn’t work, holding a body for ransom seems like the next best thing.  Enter the plan to steal Lincoln’s body.  Oddly, this was not the first attempt to do so.

Now, the behind-the-scenes look of the planning needed to carry out this heist.   The whole picture.  Not only does the reader follow the criminals’ plan, the Secret Service’s trap to foil the body snatching and put away “coneys” that have eluded them for years, is included.  One blunder and we are reminded that even the best-laid plan can fail.

This small book is packed with historical facts and accounts.  Mr. Sheinkin imparted this wisdom masterfully.  It didn’t even feel like I was learning!  I love, love, love that this book includes a Cast of Characters listing with micro-bios at the front and the Glossary of Phrases at the end.  While I do believe that this book will often be read for pleasure; I see the potential for it to become an asset in certain school classes.  It is my hope that many young folks will be reading about these “coneys” and their quirky ideas.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2013.