There are consequences of war: any war. It’s easy to say that ‘our’ army goes off to war to fight for ‘the great cause’ whatever it is at the time: and as a result, people die on both sides; there’s a general to-ing and fro-ing of ground lost or gained during one bloody struggle after another; and eventually one side capitulates and an armistice is signed. The ‘winner’ strong arms the loser into accepting punishing terms, and then everyone goes home. If only it were that easy.
World War I initiated the age of modern warfare: ushering in new inventions that had a greater capacity to kill the enemy in much greater numbers than ever before. To debilitate and mutilate the human mind and body to the ultimate extent: and still leave many of them living. Nearly a century after the close of WWI, we are still finding out about the horrible mistakes, misguided honour, unrealistic expectations, fear, terrible atrocities, unfulfilled promises, and battlefield loss, and learning to deal with it. Dying quickly on the battlefield was probably the most merciful and cleanest of deaths: preferably from a bullet. Bombs and ceaseless bombardment didn’t leave much of human remains to be buried. And if they did, sometimes they were found in time and sometimes they weren’t. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in France and never came home. Many are buried in marked graves or lost unmarked graves: but just as many are not, and exist now only as names on a memorial somewhere in Europe. In the bloody fields of Flanders, the Somme Valley, the Marne, Passchendale – names that would have reawakened horror in returned soldiers – the bodies of fighting men sank into the deep mud and were never seen again. For the soldiers who came home – whole or otherwise – their lives and their world were changed forever. Irreparably damaged lungs from mustard gas attacks that would frustrate and humble any previously able bodied man; endless nightmares that sent men screaming from their sleep to walk the London streets late of a night and early morning; lack of work and food in a post war economy that had once promised to create a land fit for heroes; friends gone forever; whole families and groups of friends wiped out because they ‘joined up together’, and often died together; shell-shock victims who never came out of their waking comas, only to live out a life in constant care if they were lucky, with the last thing they saw on the battlefield perhaps playing out in their minds; and then there were those whose wounds were too horrific for polite company.
In war, when weapons kill indiscriminately, they can also horrifically wound indiscriminately. Bombs of varying kinds took faces, jaws, and parts of skulls as well as the usual limb and still the victims miraculously lived. Some might have seen it as a never-ending curse. Of course, medical technology in the early 20th century did it’s best with rehabilitative surgery and therapy: flesh painted tin masks covered a lot of ravaged faces, but for many they did not work so well. Families of returned soldiers with such injuries did their best for them, but found themselves adrift without mental or physical skills to heal their wounded sons and husbands. The most severely physically damaged withdrew from society and lived at home away from prying eyes, but some found solace of a sort in communities with other like -wounded men. Their lives had all but ended on the battlefield, and forever after, they just existed. Any society likes its heroes whole and hearty, ready to be honoured and then put aside while the business of living is gotten on with. With the horrifically wounded, no matter how much they were heroes themselves, they had no place in genteel society. Their presence would be a constant reminder of war, and of great loss, enduring anguish, and horror, to a society that just wanted to move on. Remembering is one thing, but to be reminded of these things every day is akin to insanity.
In her books about her protagonist, ‘Maisie Dobbs’, Jacqueline Winspear skillfully weaves murder mysteries among the threads of the consequences arising out of WWI. Ms. Winspear does not write about overall revenge, or of winners and losers, of single-minded victories, or patriotic fervour. Her books contain a great deal of understanding, strength, compassion, and healing – sometimes through extraordinary means. The main underlying theme is ‘Truth – with harm to none’: a rocky road to be sure, but trodden carefully by the most extraordinary and complicated woman that is Maisie Dobbs. Maisie is herself a survivor of the battlefields of wartime France: a very young nurse with a remarkable history and fortitude of mind. A bomb exploding on the casualty clearing station she was working in, robbed her of her true love and many of her workmates, and left her with resulting shell-shock. She heals physically, returns to England to continue her nursing till the end of the war, then takes up her studies at Cambridge again and becomes the assistant to her mentor and teacher, Maurice Blanche. However, nothing in Maisie’s life could ever be so simply put. That is why Jacqueline Winspear’s books are so compelling.“Maisie Dobbs”
This story opens in 1929, ten years after the close of World War I. Maisie Dobbs is a self possessed young woman of thirty years of age about to embark upon the adventure of opening her own business: that of discreet investigations and psychology. Her mentor and teacher, Maurice Blanche, has retired and Maisie has decided to step up from the role of his assistant and become the investigator herself - as if anything so momentous could ever be so tritely described. During episodic flashbacks to Maisie’s early life and the war, we find out that Maisie is the daughter of a costermonger – a man who sells vegetables door to door – and a much beloved mother who has died of a lingering illness. Beset with debts, Frankie, Maisie’s father, places his daughter in service at the only place he trusts: with the staff of Lord and Lady Compton at Ebury Place, London. The work is hard and long, but fair, and Maisie gets to continue her voracious reading via weekly visits to the lending library for the butler and cook, as well as see her father on Sunday afternoons. Maisie falls in love with the library in the Compton household, and gets up an hour earlier each morning for some quiet study time – endlessly making notes about what she reads. After a very late night out, Lady Rowan Compton, herself mentored by the mysterious Maurice Blanche, discovers Maisie during her nocturnal study in the library. Following initial astonishment of finding a maid in an out of bounds area, Lady Rowan becomes interested: she questions Maisie closely about what she has read, why she has read something, and what notes she has made. Terrified of being sacked and turned out on the street, Maisie endures an agonizing week before she is formally brought before Lady Rowan again. There, she is tested upon the breadth, depth and understanding of her knowledge and studies by Maurice Blanche. At the end of the session, satisfied that there is a degree of brilliance within Maisie’s mind, he declares that he is willing to teach and shape that mind over a period of time, with the full cooperation of the Comptons and their staff: however, the learning must be done on Maisie’s own time and must not interfere with her performance of household duties. So begins the extraordinary education of an extraordinary mind. It is far from easy as Maisie deals with social pressures, peer pressures, increasing disquiet in her relationship with her father, and trying to find her purpose and place in pre-wartime London. It is far from easy, walking such a precipitous line. Her education includes not only the usual grounding in literature and the arts, but in social studies, philosophy, logic, culture, psychology, religion, and the eastern principles of self discipline, meditation, and seeing more than what the eye sees. All this plays into Maisie’s natural intuitive side, and gives her a ‘grounding’ in her life’s work. She wants to become like Maurice – a healer of sorts, especially of the mind.
Maisie wins a scholarship to Cambridge University. It is what she has been shaped and educated to do. With cast off clothes from Lady Rowan, a few precious gifts from her father and the Compton’s staff, she ventures into the hallowed halls with a steely determination to succeed. It is 1914 and the shadow of war looms over all. Young men from all over the Commonwealth leave home and work to ‘join up’. This leaves the Compton’s country house, Chelstone Manor, short of staff. Desperate for a groom for her beloved horses, Lady Rowan asks Maisie’s father Frankie if he would like a home and work in the country. He accepts, and promptly endears himself to Lady Rowan by saving her precious horses from conscription by the War Office in order to be sent to the Front. Fellow maid and dear friend, Enid, joins the war effort by working in a munitions factory – her life complicated by her love affair with the Compton’s son, James, and her desire to be worthy of being accepted as James’ future bride. Unthinkable in a society still obsessed with class distinctions.
During her initial short period at Girton College at Cambridge, Maisie meets two people who affect her profoundly: college mate, down to earth aristocrat Priscilla Evernden; and the dashing young Doctor Simon Lynch, on his way to the Front. The first is to become a lifelong friend, and the second, the love of her own life.
After a chance encounter at Liverpool station with her friend, Enid, Maisie starts to question her role in life as the war and all its horrors starts to pervade everything. Enid is killed in an explosion at the munitions factory the same afternoon, Priscilla has already enlisted as an ambulance driver, and Maisie’s thoughts turn to how she can help. She enrolls as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) after lying about her age and forging a reference on Lord Julian’s stationery. She is approximately seventeen years old when the war started, and just over eighteen a year later when she is sent out to the Front. There, Maisie once more meets up with young Captain Lynch, and their friendship blossoms into young love amidst the setting of a bloody, muddy war and endless casualties. They are finally assigned to work together near the Front at Bailleul Casualty Clearing Station, but tragedy strikes soon after in the form of a misguided bombardment. Maisie is virtually a sole survivor with her own injuries – mental and physical – while Simon lingers in a waking coma, never to know her, or anything else, ever again.
At this point, the plot jumps back to 1929, where Maisie has taken on her first solo case: a gentleman of business is concerned that his beloved wife is having an affair. What seems to be a simple observation and reporting back to the husband, leads Maisie to investigate not only that, but also to delve into the mysterious deaths and lives of those returned soldiers who have been profoundly disfigured and injured during the Great War. Whilst helping those clients who have been affected by these situations, Maisie also helps herself. Truth is finding its way back into her own healing and long denial of what happened in France. Closer to home, James Compton, shell-shocked himself and still heart-sickened over the loss of Enid all those years ago, gets caught up peripherally in Maisie’s investigations. He is in danger, along with a lot of innocent men who must live like recluses because there is no place in normal society for them.
Other threads in the tapestry include Billy Beale who originally works as a janitor in the slightly dilapidated building housing Maisie’s new office. He is a returned soldier, injured in France and one of the last patients to be saved by Simon and Maisie at the Casualty Clearing Station during the war. He remembers Maisie’s distinctive midnight blue eyes, and recalls her care. A character unto himself – full of cockney charm and his own wartime afflictions - he eventually becomes her assistant in her practice.
At the climax to the story, there is one very moving scene as Maisie raises her voice to sing “The Rose of No Man’s Land” - the soldier’s wartime anthem to the Red Cross Nurse – to calm an audience of frightened, disfigured returned soldiers, whilst trying to disarm their insane leader, and rescue Billy from certain death. As well as the danger, there is a great deal of compassion, depth, and caring in this scene. The same could be said for the entirety of this very compelling book.
Ms. Winspear has captured a time and place with her writing that knows no current comparison. She tells the story of Maisie and her friends; England at war; Billy; and the wounded and their leader, without preaching, without benefit of false set up and plot devices. Ms. Winspear allows the stories to speak for themselves, and gives them voice and freedom at last – without rancour, finger pointing, or the black and white attributes of vindictive patriotism. That is a true gift.(One of Publishers’ Weekly’s Best Mysteries of 2003; New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003; Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel 2003; Agatha Award winner for Best First Novel 2003)
“Birds of a Feather”
In this second outing by Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs has established her business as a Psychiatric Counselor and Investigator to a degree where there is a steady flow of new clients and work. Not overwhelming, but steady. She, and her assistant, Billy Beale perform their work with the same steadfast seriousness whether it be a simple case of investigating the background of a proposed fiancé or employee, compiling information, to finding missing articles or persons. It is the latter that involves our Maisie and Billy this time. Wealthy, self-made grocery mogul, Joseph Waite demands their attendance on him, in order for them to find and return his flighty daughter, Charlotte, who has run away from home. What initially appears to be a straightforward job, winds through many convolutions and three murders, which have their roots firmly lodged back in the Great War. Consequences of actions and subsequent shame; secrets; remembrance and reminders; penance and punishment; and poverty and wealth: contrasts that are all skillfully woven into a dramatic story with realistic characters, a solid plot, and climatic resolve. As always, the recreation of London’s social background – from the highest to the lowest – and the recreation of post war London herself is a remarkable and believable achievement by Ms. Winspear.
In ‘Birds of a Feather’, Maisie is forced to face several issues about her own life. Her previously growing estrangement from her beloved father Frankie comes to a head when he is injured during the foaling of a prize mare. Old issues that Maisie has long buried, and thought done with, must be healed. Father and daughter are brought closer together and Maisie personally learns the power of forgiveness, for it is forgiveness that permeates the conclusion of the case of the runaway socialite.
Closer to home, morphine addiction is another insidious consequence arising from the battlefields of France. As a pain medication, it was used unstintingly at casualty triage stations and throughout recovery at home in England. Its addictive powers were not recognized immediately, and many soldiers came home craving the stuff. When Billy Beale was injured and nearly lost his leg, he was one of the few that were difficult to medicate at all. The subsequent morphine addiction he returned from war with was not as great as some others, and he managed to loose its tempting grip. However, the craving rears its ugly head again during the story, when the pain in his leg becomes too great to bear unaided. Maisie must help Billy to face up to his problem and find a solution to both his rehabilitation and the healing of his leg.
The feathers of the title refer to the white feathers given to men assumed, or accused of being cowards. In the case of WWI, it was any man not in uniform that was perceived to be whole enough to serve his country. Women usually handed the feathers out to apparently able-bodied men – some only boys - as an act of shame. Although conscription would have taken many of these men when it was instituted in 1915(?), the practice of the white feathers was a far more personal act of sending a man or boy to his death or horrible maiming. The white feather scheme was eventually seen as something shameful in itself, but not soon enough to save thousands of youths from foolishly reacting to that call. War was still a great adventure at that stage, and knowledge of the horrors that pervaded the battlefields had yet to make it back to Britain – such was the wartime censorship. Charlotte Waite, it turns out, was one of these ‘harpies’ from the Order of the White Feather, and someone is killing her friends. Maisie must risk her own life to find out who and why.
Surprisingly, romance enters Maisie’s life during this time, in the form of Doctor Andrew Dene. He’s light hearted and funny, a veteran of the war, and of humble roots stemming from Bermondsey. He’s also a former student of Maisie’s mentor, Maurice Blanche. So Maisie’s loneliness is assuaged by his enthusiastic attendance on her, but the spectre of the long-sleeping, beloved Simon still haunts her. Also, the demands of her work, and her devotion to it, overshadow anything Maisie might personally desire. It is perhaps a haven for her to hide in sometimes.
“Birds of a Feather” is a heart-wrenching story, and no less compelling than its predecessor. The high quality of writing and storytelling is something I’ve come to expect from Jacqueline Winspear: in fact, to anticipate, really. As usual, the events unfold like flower petals, revealing the new petals secreted beneath, with even more intricacies beneath those – until the full pattern is unveiled. Such is the subtlety of Ms. Winspear’s work.
(Birds of a Feather is the winner of the Agatha Award for Best Novel)
There are three plot lines which drive Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘Pardonable Lies’ – one involving a young girl charged with murder on circumstantial evidence; the second involving the proof that a courageous, but scandalous young airman actually died during the war in France; and the third is a search for the mortal remains of Peter Evernden, the brother of Maisie’s dearest friend, Priscilla. All three are deftly interwoven, propelling each other along towards resolution. As consequences go, it is Maisie who must ultimately face up to her own past, both from the war, and from her apprenticeship with Maurice. He tries to shield her from the obvious – the involvement of the French Secret Service – and the obscure, the re-emergence of her own shellshock when there are still loose ends that need to be urgently tied up.
The opening chapter of this novel introduces the character of Maisie through the perspective of a third party, a young ‘newly minted’ woman police officer watching over a young girl who is charged with murder. It’s a fascinating study of Maisie’s professional technique as she slowly but carefully draws the girl out of her shock and gets her to talk. The woman police officer is astounded that Maisie succeeds where the detectives have failed, and is almost mesmerized at how she accomplishes this feat, likening it to ‘like being in church’. There is power in this initial chapter as the author evokes the readers’ empathy and sets up the ‘domino’ reaction of the events yet to unfold.
In the turbulent times of the early 1930s, when the world is gripped by the early years of the Great Depression, and uneasy stirrings of cultural animosity along the Rhine in Germany, Maisie learns that some secrets still linger for a reason and some linger for far too long. For the first time, Maisie faces personal danger as several attempts are made to kill her. At one such time she is saved by a seeming ‘ghost’, that affects her profoundly. Although several suspects emerge from her investigations, the real culprit remains elusively out of reach until the very end. Meanwhile, Maisie’s own private crisis comes to a head when she visits the former site of the Bailleul Casualty Clearing Station where she nearly died twelve years before. And now where the terrible grief she spent so many years trying to build a wall against finally breaks through. This is a terribly moving scene, and possibly one of the best of its kind ever written in contemporary fiction.
During the course of her investigations, Maisie unravels the fate of the dead flier, and unearths the double-edged sword of Peter Evernden’s secrets. In doing so, she learns that she may have ultimately been responsible for his recruitment into a dangerous situation. Maisie also finds out that Maurice has, on occasion, not been fully truthful with her: has in fact ‘used’ her innocent knowledge to betray one of her friend’s trust. Maurice himself, reveals the demise of Peter and as many details as he can safely supply - for it appears that his role in the previous war is not over. These details cause an estrangement between them, as Maisie can’t help her feelings of betrayal. Under these stresses, plus a lack of proper eating and sleep, she insists on returning to Bailleul alone – as fully independent as she has been taught and brought up to be. She has never felt more alone, or the burden of her survivors guilt more, than when her ‘break’ forces its way through her defences.
Maurice is there when she wakes three days later, and shepherds her home to London with extracted promises for Maisie to rest. Of course, Maisie cannot do so for long – for the urgent questions she was charged to find answers for, are pressing. She must fulfill her promises – both to the living, and to the dead – and face death down one final time. And for the very first time in her life, she begins to fly free…
This is a powerful story of personal growth.
(Pardonable Lies wins the inaugural Macavity/Sue Feder Best Historical Mystery Award in (2006), and received a nomination for the Agatha Award for Best Novel, and the Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery.)
To read excerpts from Jacqueline's novels, Maisie Dobb's world, and about Jacqueline Winspear herself, please visit www.jacquelinewinspear.com “Messenger of Truth”
Following the extreme personal upheavals of Maisie’s mental state in ‘Pardonable Lies’ - the re-emergence of her own shellshock and former suppression and denial thereof - this new novel appears to be lighter in texture regarding Maisie’s ongoing story. Both mystery and plot are still as strong as Ms. Winspear’s earlier Maisie Dobbs stories, but this time Maisie is left to fend for herself and face life for herself. Indeed it is what she wants, and almost fears, the most – and equally fearing her loss of independence. The previously strong sub-characters that have surrounded and played large parts in Maisie’s story make only token appearance here. Her father, Frankie, is comfortably present when needed; Dame Constance only a spur to bring Maisie and her client together; Lady Rowan as a voice of caution; and Maurice Blanche conspicuously absent by way of a still raw personal rift with Maisie from the previous novel. Therefore Maisie flies on her own in ‘Messenger of Truth’, eventually losing Andrew Dene, and almost her faithful Billy Beale, along the way. But life never runs smoothly when change is in the air.
The mystery that involves Maisie’s professional services seems, at first, like a straightforward accident: innocent, tragic, the clear-cut misstep of an artist hanging his latest masterpieces in a gallery, alone and late at night. The artist’s twin sister is the only one who feels that something is not right. It’s her way of feeling it that moves Maisie to take the case. However, not all is as it appears. For the artist, always controversial in choice of themes and subjects, harboured secrets of his own: and this latest exhibition would definitely cause damage to someone. Would that someone commit murder to silence the artist’s vision to protect him or her self? This is what Maisie must discover, as well as the unknown whereabouts of the artworks in question. Suspects include the artist’s friends and fellow artists, an insistent wealthy American collector, Customs and Excise agents, smugglers, and of course, the family – a close collection of highly talented creatives, whose world revolves around colour, texture, words, and music.
Concurrently, it is the Great Depression in England, and queues line the streets daily, for work and for food. Everyone is feeling the pinch, particularly Maisie and her assistant, Billy Beale, and his family. Both find themselves shocked at the high price art will bring on the open market, as well as the large amounts of cash readily available to buy it. The inconsistency between the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ is alarming. As a personal consequence of financial difficulties, the Beales face grief and bereavement in the death of their youngest child.
In the course of the story, Maisie’s romance with Doctor Andrew Dene hits rocky ground. He wants to marry Maisie but she finds it difficult to commit herself to him or the sacrifices she’d eventually have to make, to have a normal married life with him. In the long run, he has met someone else who is more sure of herself in these matters and sure of him. Maisie sees them together momentarily and senses only a fondness and a great relief. Such is the truth of her feelings. I’m not sure that Maisie will ever re-discover the deep love of her youth following its subsequent great loss. She’s not sure if she can ever sacrifice her desperately hard-won independence, nor suffer to bury her inquisitive mind beneath the roles of wife and mother. She needs someone who respects what she does and the personal achievements she has succeeded in, and will give her the space she needs to pursue them. And will love her for them, all the more. Maybe we will see someone like this appear in later novels. Meanwhile, the author has begun a deliberate but subtle reassessing of D.I. Richard Stratton, describing him as having a sort of cinema star resemblance and cutting an unobtrusively fine figure. I smiled at these references, and wondered if he was going to be a waxing beau to Andrew Dene’s waning, or if in fact Stratton is another red herring. Maisie does not give her heart lightly, or often. She’s a deep one, is our Maisie.
Themes in this story include: ‘truth’ in its aspect of brutal unvarnished honesty, and also in its gentle, tensile threads of subtlety; death and rebirth - the literal as well as the spiritual; and balance and atonement. The consequences of the war shockingly reveals itself in the paintings of the dead artist: uncovering the shameful practice of wartime soldiers shot at dawn – for ‘cowardice’, for ‘treason’, for addled behaviour resulting from shell-shock, for the simple mistake of falling asleep at a post, for being terrified. Actions and consequences, fear and shame, secrets and knowledge, all deftly unfold beneath the author’s usual finesse at combining compassion, character and drama.
No, I did not know ‘whodunnit’ – or could that possibly be ‘why it happened’ - until Maisie announced the murderer’s name at the climax. There were too many ripe characters with good reason to ‘off’ the artist. But Maisie used her cool and gentle fingers to separate the strands of a very tangled web, and to tease them into a semblance of order in her own mind. That, as usual, was handled extremely well.
Very well written as usual, however I sense that this is a transitory novel for Maisie’s character. Maisie is persuaded to dance a little and laugh a little, and she likes it. She is beginning to feel that there is light, colour and texture missing from her life and she can sense them at times, drawing her as a moth to a flame. The Bassington-Hopes being the abnormal, colourful flame, and the irrepressible Alex Courtman being a fun-loving satellite as well as a possible murder suspect. However, Maisie is as always: careful, weighing of self-analysis, and thoughtful of consequences. She slowly begins the enormous task of filling the emptiness in her newly purchased flat and thereby her life, even though her work will ever consume her.
I’m partial to murder mysteries involving old history or artists, or both. So, I’m going to place ‘Messenger of Truth’ up on the shelf next to my copy of Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Artists in Crime’ novel. They will keep good company.
(Messenger of Truth has been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Novel.)
Late note: At the time of writing this, Jacqueline advises that she has completed final edits on the next Maisie Dobbs novel, and has handed it over to her publisher. I can’t wait to see the results…
Labels: maisie dobbs, The Great War, winspear, WWI