The American Agent
By Jacqueline Winspear. (Harper, 365 pages, $27.99.)
Books in the Maisie Dobbs series are always as much about the heroine’s ongoing journey as they are about the mysteries she solves, and it’s the big changes in her life that make this 15th “Maisie” book one of the best. Set in London during the Blitz, “The American Agent” puts Maisie’s intuition to the test as she tries to suss out the killer of an American reporter who seemed to be on the verge of becoming a female Edward R. Murrow.
Meanwhile, Maisie is also navigating frequent train delays to scuttle between the capital city and her country home, where the orphan girl she hopes to adopt lives, far from the author’s vividly rendered rain of deadly bombs. Winspear’s desire to keep a steady stream of drama coming has in recent years been rough for resourceful Maisie, who has lost a mentor, a husband, a friend and a child in the past few books. But caring for another person seems to be sending Maisie in a direction that’s more fulfilling for her and satisfying for fans of this heartfelt series.
The Age of Light
By Whitney Scharer. (Little, Brown & Co., 384 pages, $28.)
Lee Miller was only 22 when she plunged into the surrealism that was 1929 Paris. Her beauty had made her a successful model in New York, but she wanted to chuck all that. “She has come to start over, to make art instead of being made into it,” author Whitney Scharer says in this historical fiction. Before long, Miller will meet Surrealist photographer/painter Man Ray, an established artist 17 years her senior. She will become his studio assistant, his lover, his muse and, eventually, his rival.
It’s the stuff of romance novels, but it’s true. Miller’s tempestuous real life — from abused child to shellshocked war correspondent — is tailor-made for historical fiction. For her debut novel, Scharer wisely focuses on the formative years that Miller spent with Ray. Miller absorbs all Ray can teach about camera and darkroom techniques. Ray introduces her to avant-garde celebrities such as Jean Cocteau. A steamy darkroom scene cements their interdependence.
But as Miller develops her own art, tensions build. “Nothing huge, just a crack in the sidewalk, with her on one side and him on the other,” she thinks as she prepares to appease him again. Readers watching her mind at work may be tempted to say, “Oh, grow up!” But Miller’s dilemma illustrates the pressures that many ambitious young women face in their love and work lives.