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Literary Glance: The American Agent: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear

April 7, 2019

Jacqueline Winspear, author of the current mystery bestseller The American Agent, has a cool name.  As far as I know, it’s her real name.  If she’d had a boring original name, I wouldn’t have blamed her for using Jacqueline Winspear as a pseudonym.  It’s a cool name.

Fictional character Catherine Angelica Saxon from The American Agent also has a cool name, but then she gets killed off in the beginning of the novel.  That’s not a spoiler because it’s in the book description, and if it’s in the book description, it’s not a spoiler.  Anyway, I never understood wasting a cool name on a dead character.  If I thought of a cool name, I’d save it for a character who shows up a lot or one who can come back in other books.  Yeah, the cool name itself gets repeated a lot because the victims always gets talked about in mystery novels, but it still feels like so much wasted potential.

That’s not really my problem with The American Agent, though.  It’s the dialogue.  Sometimes a potentially great story is sidetracked by unnatural dialogue.  I know fans of Maisie Dobbs will disagree.  Detective/mystery fans can be the most loyal fans out there.  The most vicious insults I’ve received are from Sue Grafton fans after I said the author put too many daily routine details into her books (this was years before she died, so I wasn’t being insensitive).  Maybe it was also because I called the alphabet series a really dumb idea.  Looking back, I probably should have used language that was more diplomatic.

A lot of mystery novelists use dialogue for exposition, and in the case of The American Agent, it’s unnecessary.  In this early scene, Maisie finds out that an acquaintance of hers, a journalist from the United States, has been found dead.  It’s a predictable scene, especially since I knew the character would die before I started reading.  At this point, she is speaking with some guy named MacFarlance on the phone:

Maisie chewed her lip.  It wasn’t like McFarlane to request forgiveness.  She knew him only too well, and if he was rude, it was generally by design, not an error.

“Why are you calling me, Robbie? You’ve let me know you’re keeping tabs on me, but I am bone tired and I want to rest my weary head before I try to get some work done today, and then take my ambulance out again.”

“It’s about an American.  One of those press people over here on a quest to keep our good friends on the other side of the Atlantic informed about the war.  Name of Catherine Saxon.  In fact, Miss Catherine Angelica Saxon, to give the woman her full monicker.”

“Angelica?”

“No accounting for the Yanks, Maisie.”

Maisie rubbed her neck, following the path of an old scar now barely visible, and shivered.  “No, it’s just that… well, she was with us on the ambulance last night, just for a couple of runs because she had to make her first broadcast- she told us that she had previously only had her reports printed in the newspapers.  I can’t remember which paper she’s working for .  More than one.  Anyway, I was just listening to her on the wireless at Mrs. Partridge’s house- her report was broadcast for the Americans last night.  In fact, she told us she was very excited because it was also going out in London this morning, and she hoped she would get to be as popular as Mr. Murrow, who is as well known here as he is over there in America.  I’ve heard of him a few times myself.  Anyway, it’s just that she didn’t strike me as An Angelica, that’s all, even if it’s only a middle name.”  Maisie was aware that she was rambling, staving off whatever news MacFarlane had called to convey.  She’d wanted to escape war and death if only for the time it took to wallow in a hot bath.

Just so you know, Maisie spoke uninterrupted over the phone for 151 words.  That’s a lot of consecutive words for a conversation.  True, the author admits that Maisie knew she was rambling, but that doesn’t make the exposition through dialogue any more natural.  Did Maisie really need to tell MacFarlane that Edward R. Murrow was well known in England?  Did Maisie really need to explain her bewilderment over the name Angelica?

Here’s how this scene could have looked, with less dialogue but the same information:

Maisie chewed her lip.  It wasn’t like McFarlane to request forgiveness.  She knew him only too well, and if he was rude, it was generally by design, not an error.

“Why are you calling me, Robbie?” she asked.  “You’ve already let me know you’re keeping tabs on me.” Maisie was bone tired and wanted to rest her weary head before she tried to get some work done, and then take her ambulance out again.

“It’s about an American.  One of their press people.  Name of Catherine Saxon.  Miss Catherine Angelica Saxon.

“Angelica?”

“No accounting for the Yanks, Maisie.”

Maisie rubbed her neck, following the path of an old scar now barely visible, and shivered.  “No, it’s just that… well, she was with us on the ambulance last night, just for a couple of runs because she had to make her first broadcast- she told us that she had previously only had her reports printed in the newspapers.  I can’t remember which paper she’s working for.  More than one.”

Maisie explained the details as best she could, how she had been listening to on the wireless at Mrs. Partridge’s house- Ms. Saxon’s report was broadcast for the Americans last night.  Saxon had told them she was very excited because it was also going out in London this morning, and she hoped she would get to be as popular as Edward R. Murrow.

When Maisie caught herself rambling about how Mrs. Saxon hadn’t struck her as an Angelica, she knew she was staving off whatever news MacFarlane had called to convey.  Maisie wanted to escape war and death if only for the time it took to wallow in a hot bath.

Maybe I’m old fashioned for believing exposition shouldn’t be all dialogue.  Then again, a lot of old mystery novelists used the same technique as Winspear, so maybe she’s the old fashioned one and I’m just cranky and hypercritical.  Maybe it’s just my personal preference.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t like The American Agent.  It could still be a good mystery novel.  And Jacqeline Winspear still has a cool name.  No amount of block paragraph dialogue can change that.

3 Comments
  1. Madam Mim permalink

    I’m a massive fan of these books and I can’t wait to read The American Agent. I do see what you mean about some of the dialogue though… but hey, the Maisie Dobbs books have a very particular style. I guess no book is for everyone! Did you enjoy the plot, the mystery, at least? The setting?

    • I’m not the best judge of mysteries (I read too many of them about 20 years ago and got tired of the formula), but I understand why these are popular. Plus, it’s tough to mess up mysteries set during World War II.

      • Madam Mim permalink

        It’s a great setting for a mystery. One of my favourites, I think it’s such a fascinating era of history. It does give a mystery interest and substance

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