The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maisie Dobbs is beloved. Jacqueline Winspear’s latest reminds us why.

In ‘A Sunlit Weapon,’ Maisie’s pluck, intelligence and moral fortitude are on full display

(Stephanie Mohan; Harper)

Over the course of 16 novels, Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear’s field nurse turned detective, has inspired millions of readers with her patriotism, love for family and moral fortitude. There’s even a book and online community called “What Would Maisie Do?” for those who want to emulate her.

Dobbs inspires again in her latest fictional outing, “A Sunlit Weapon.” The setting is England, 1942, and Maisie becomes embroiled in an intricate plot that involves attacks on military planes, a missing private and a group of men hoping to kill first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. If that sounds like a lot, it is, but Winspear (mostly) pulls it off.

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When the story opens, Maisie has been hired by a ferry pilot named Jo Hardy who suspects someone shot at the Spitfire plane she was piloting over rural Kent. Before the attack, Jo’s fiancee was killed when his plane went down in the countryside, and shortly after Jo’s plane was shot at, another Air Transport Auxiliary pilot died when her plane crashed. Official investigations did not point toward deliberate downings, but Jo thinks she saw a man aiming a firearm at her Spitfire as she flew it in a low swoop over farmland.

Maisie is also drawn into the case of a Black American soldier suspected in the disappearance and possible murder of a White compatriot. This plotline gives Winspear a vehicle to explore racism in the American military. Maisie believes the Black soldier, Matthias Crittenden, has been set up, and she sets her sights on clearing his name. Throughout, readers have a bird’s eye view of segregated American troops in Britain and how U.S. military police worked to keep the races apart, both on and off military bases.

Things hit a little closer to home when Maisie’s olive-skinned, black-haired adopted daughter, Anna, is bullied and physically attacked at school. She’s taunted with an ethnic slur used to denigrate Italians who are allied against Britain in the war. Maisie gets to the root of the problem, but this particular subplot, which also has tentacles reaching into other parts of this story, concludes with a revelation that feels a bit too contrived.

Anna’s story, though, does fold nicely into “A Sunlit Weapon’s” social justice themes. In one scene, Anna asks Matthias if he’s ever been called by the derogatory name that children have been using to taunt and hurt her. Matthias says he hasn’t been called that particular name, but tells her, “My mama says people call us names because they don’t have minds big enough to see inside the size of our hearts.” That’s a universal truth that often turns up in Winspear’s novels as Maisie seeks justice for underdogs.

The inspiration for Maisie Dobbs? Jacqueline Winspear’s memoir offers charming clues.

Every novel about Maisie is a gift, but we have another iteration to look forward to. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s production company has optioned the television and film rights to the series. The novels’ suspenseful storylines, bookended by two World Wars, almost guarantee that any live-action series or movie will be entertaining and provocative. The biggest mystery now is which actor can bring the indomitable Maisie Dobbs to life.

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.

A Sunlit Weapon

By Jacqueline Winspear

Harper. 368 pp. $27.99

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