- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010


By Jacqueline Winspear

Harper, $25.99, 338 pages


By Jo Nesbo

Harper, $25.99, 464 pages


Stalwart female detective Maisie Dobbs finds love and maybe happiness in this account of what it was like to live in a world where it was bad enough to be a woman, but worse to have not been born into the upper ranks of British society.

Maisie’s potential marriage to a handsome viscount receives a lukewarm reception from his mother, presumably for the reason that this young woman isn’t quite what she had in mind as a daughter-in-law. It takes the bestowal of an unexpected and lavish inheritance on Maisie for her to become serious about marrying her viscount, although you get the feeling she isn’t rapturous about it. You also get the impression that marriage is not high on Maisie’s list of priorities.

Always preoccupied by her conscience, she is already brooding over a letter left by her benefactor about the new role she must play as the shadows of World War II gather. Nobody is likely to expect her to settle down and preside over her newly acquired properties while enjoying tea and crumpets.

But yes, there is a murder that Maisie solves while struggling with the rigid social mores of Britain between World War I and World War II. The discovery of the body of Michael Clifton, an American-born cartographer in the British army who died in the trenches, is followed by the revelation that he was not killed by German artillery but murdered before the attack.

The question is why, and it takes Maisie on a fascinating and dangerous trail. Maisie is attacked, and the wealthy Americans who have hired her to investigate their son’s death are brutally beaten in their hotel room. The answer lies in family bitterness and a wealthy land investment, and it takes both Maisie and her allies at Scotland Yard to unravel the mystery and face down the killer.

Ms. Winspear has created in Maisie a tough-minded woman who is far ahead of her time in her determination to be an independent operator. She has had a harrowing experience as a nurse coping with the wounded and the dying who became her patients during the war. She becomes romantically and tragically involved during the war and is emotionally withdrawn in later years.

It is a pity that the author’s austere style of writing makes even her characters’ conversations stilted. There are episodes when Maisie sounds like a message on a postcard, and there is little evidence of her feelings for the man she presumably will marry. He kisses her and it is obviously a concession that she “does not draw back.”

What she does do is go right back to her detecting work, and as far as we know, neither James nor his kiss is on her mind. Maisie is supposed to be a creature with passionate feelings, but they are buried in the shell she has built around herself. She has dedicated herself to a life that leaves no room for fun or frivolity, and while she recognizes this, she seems disinclined to do anything that will distract her from a spartan and serious existence. She has her memories and she has her murders, but in the end, the question may be who is Maisie?

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