Beginning about a year after the events in A Dangerous Place, Winspear’s latest outing finds Maisie Dobbs back in England and staying in London with her best friend, Pricilla. The years spent away have given Maisie pause, rendering everything around her in sharp relief. Memories come and go.
As she walks towards Fitzroy Square, she thinks she spies a ghost from her past “reaching out to pull her in.” As her eyes yet again fill with tears, Maisie recalls how she was often so afraid of returning home.
True to form, Maisie barely has time to ponder the loss of her beloved James--or even dwell on Pricilla’s gossip that Maisie’s one-time nemesis Elaine Otterburn has abandoned her husband and child and gone to ground somewhere in Munich--when she’s called to a meeting with Robert MacFarlane
(former Special Branch Detective) and Brian Huntley. Huntley tells Maisie that her country needs her for one short assignment: to rescue Leon Donat, a wealthy businessman and “inventor with a touch of genius.” Leon was making connections with German publishers before he was imprisonedin a concentration camp called Dachau, just outside of Munich. A British citizen incarcerated against his will, an agreement has been reached with the Nazi authorities to release Donat. Maisie’s mission will be to pose as Donat’s daughter, Edwina, and assume her identity so that a family member might receive the prisoner when he is released.
Without a doubt, a sense of excitement spreads in Maisie. Yes, she wants to find out how it feels to be working again, but for obvious reasons, she’s hesitant to be drawn into this covert work on behalf of the British government. A women still somewhat adrift, Maisie thought she had come to terms with her loss--as if traveling for so long had perhaps changed her. Maisie’s past happiness with James is “like a ghost standing sentinel,” the memories of her short time with him constantly “brushing against her skin like gossamer shadows.”
But Maisie is anything but a shrinking violet. Proud of her industrious work as a private investigator, her broad traveling experiences, and ability to make her own way in the world, Maisie
takes MacFarlane and Huntley up on their offer. Together with an altered physical appearance--a wig--and
also a revolver in her handbag, Maisie steadily transforms herself into Edwina Donat, a woman on her way to claim her father from a prison known for brutality in the name of a regime that according to Huntley and MacFarlane, threatens peace in the world. Unaccustomed to the wig’s sweaty discomfort and the gun she will only fire if her life Leon Donat's are in danger, Maisie finds herself searching for the mysterious, selfish temptress Elaine Otterburn, buoyed along by a plea from Elaine’s father, John, the man she ultimately holds responsible for her James’ untimely death.
So begins Maisie’s serpentine, exciting adventure in a tale of assumed identity, spies, and smoke and mirrors. Munich is indeed a dangerous place,
the threat personified by the guards that patrol the Munich train station and who now wear the uniforms of Adolf Hitler, a man who has managed to persuade the population their lives will be at risk if certain powers--“restrictions of your will and elements of surveillance”--are not enacted. In
this terrifying state of affairs, Maisie is forced to trust nervous British Consulate officer Gilbert Leslie and Mark Scott, the US Consulate General who “keeps cover” for her--and also Elaine Otterburn, whom Maisie soon discovers is involved in something sinister. Elaine’s honest confession to Maisie
(“I am not what I seem”) is a frightening portent, reflecting an undercurrent of fear “sprinkled like dust across the landscape.”
Peppering her novel with many tense scenes, Winspear ratchets up Maisie’s anxiety. Her first true test is her meeting at the Nazi Headquarters, the terrifying
Schutzstaffel, where she must sit face to face with SS Officer Hans Berger, a man who later proves to be a monstrous and cold-blooded killer. Maisie refuses to be intimidated as she tries calmly to bargain for Leon Donat’s release. Maisie is well aware of the escalating risks when the Nazis announce a delay in securing Donat’s freedom, a delay that is in danger of being almost entirely upon her head. When
young officer Luther Gramm is reported missing, Maisie is terrified that Berger is going to discover Gramm’s connection to Elaine. Information from Mark Scott, if it can be trusted, has suggested that a vital piece of intelligence has been played down during Maisie’s briefings in London and the Cotswolds.
Maisie faces many immediate challenges: the veracity of Donat’s documents, the journey to Dachau, a dark and terrifying prison, the release of Donat, and then the journey to get this frail, sickly man across the border. Maisie is unnerved by everything she sees since she first arrived in Munich.
A dark mood spreads among the people, a disposition that “presses down upon her heart so that she feels the weight of it on her chest.” As Maisie feels “this veil of oppression” seeping into every crevice of German life, Winspear does a terrific job of framing the novel around Hitler’s imminent invasion of Austria and how his henchmen have worked their way into a position of power.
A final eruption of danger is tied to Donat’s rescue, as well as Elaine’s newfound courage as an aviatrix and Maisie’s reluctance to fly on an airplane. More profoundly, Maisie’s grief and sadness, expounded on in the previous novel,
are finally addressed. Her marriage to James, her time in Spain, and now her dangerous journey to Munich bring her life full circle, although by novel’s end it is doubtful that her time as a secret agent and investigator has come to an end.