- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

THE MAPPING OF LOVE AND DEATH

By Jacqueline Winspear

Harper, $25.99, 338 pages

THE DEVIL’S STAR

By Jo Nesbo

Harper, $25.99, 464 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

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 She becomes romantically and tragically involved during the war and is emotionally withdrawn in later years.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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Take an alcoholic detective who has ruined most of his life and is on the edge of being fired and a sadistic serial killer whose victims are missing a finger and stamped with a red diamond shaped like a five- pointed star, and what else do you want in a thriller?

The setting is Norway, where the Oslo crime squad is strung out and stressed by its failure to capture the monster who has gotten away with lurid and vicious crimes. The anti-hero is detective Harry Hole, who knows that solving this case may be his last chance to live up to his reputation as a classic, hard-drinking lone wolf of a cop who is very good at his job when he is sober.

Nesbo makes no bones about how much of the problem Hole’s drinking is and how difficult it is for him to stay away from the bottle. The author also complicates an already intricate plot by playing Hole off against Tom Waaler, a fellow detective who is the golden boy of the police department, especially by comparison with Hole. Yet Hole has deep and strange suspicions about Waaler. It can be difficult to follow the track of not only the plot but its romantic ramifications as Hole struggles to retrieve another damaged relationship with a woman.

Meantime, the unmasking of the killer progresses, punctuated by scenes of sexual sadism clearly designed to distract the reader who just wants to know who the murderer is.

And he is whom you suspect, and he dies in a scene that wrings out every moment of melodrama and throws in a child at risk for good measure. By the time the smoke has cleared and the bloody remains of the killer have been mopped up, Hole is still his disheveled, gloomy self, but he isn’t drinking. When his boss congratulates him on his work and offers him a beer, Hole declines, observing grimly, “I’m an alcoholic.” It’s more than a small triumph.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.