- - Friday, July 13, 2012

By Jacqueline Winspear
Harper, $25.99, 352 page

Charles Dickens would have recognized the sad story of Maudie Pettit, a 16-year-old rape victim who gives birth to her son Eddie in a stable with Bess the mare as her only witness.

In a sensitive book that spans the years from the late-19th century through World War I to the gathering clouds of World War II, Jacqueline Winspear has dipped deeply into the miseries of poverty in a brutal era. And for perhaps the first time in the series, the leading character the Maisie Dobbs series, finds herself questioning her passion for control in business and personal relationships.

As the birth of Eddie Pettit is the beginning, his death is the focus of the book. His indomitable mother has struggled to care for a son who is seen by some as backward, yet who possesses an unusual intellectual capacity that was ignored in those days. Especially when its possessor was a gentle young man who loved horses at a time when horses had not been replaced by industrial equipment. Eddie’s violent death at work is ignored by the police but becomes a cause for the men he worked with.

It is these men, who sell fruit and vegetables from horse drawn carts, who take their case to Maisie Dobbs, a woman who is fortunate enough to transcend her own background as a housemaid and acquire the kind of fortune that has catapulted her into a world so elite she is inclined to resent its privileges. If anything it has made her more conscious of the have-nots - people like Eddie’s mother who still lives in poverty and has now lost the son who provided a meager income. Maisie takes on the case of Eddie Pettit and finds herself again plunged into a murderous maelstrom with her own staff in peril and her suspicions aroused about the criminals.

She is also struggling with conflicting feelings about her romantic liaison with an aristocrat, James Compton, with whom she has a relationship that is far ahead of its time in terms of social mores, and whom she has doubts about marrying. Her doubts increase when she discovers in the course of high level dinner parties that Compton has business dealings with men like a press tycoon whom Maisie considers ruthless and untrustworthy.

Ms. Winspear adroitly introduces famous names into these social gatherings, including Winston Churchill, then in his alleged “has been” political period, and already fretting about the dangers of a new war now rising on the British horizon. It is of course Churchill who is quoted as observing, “Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing has happened.” However, that is not Maisie’s style. She is more inclined to pick up those who need help, sometimes whether they want it or not.

What gives her inspiration is advice from Elizabeth Master, a psychiatrist whom Maisie knew from her own days as a nurse in France during World War I. It is Master who observes that Maisie keeps “a very tight rein on what happens in your own personal solar system” yet who is inclined to use her authority and her wealth to make decisions for others that they might not have made on their own.

“You have perhaps too strict an idea of what you should and should not be doing,” she bluntly tells Maisie, who recalls that her mentor, to whom she owed her financial good fortune, had on occasion offered similar counsel.

And as she thinks it through, it seems that her lover James and even her perceptive father have cautioned her about her capacity to take charge and take over whether it was warranted or not. She recalls that her frivolous but charming friend Priscilla had commented, “Everything good has a dark side, even generosity. It can become overbearing, intimidating, even humiliating. And no one likes to think someone else is pulling the strings, do they?”

Poor Maisie finds herself struggling to solve a mystery while beingforced to question whether she is doing the right thing when she tries to rescue her friends from trouble.

It is the first time that Ms. Winspear has made Maisie more of a human being than a woman of total belief in her own concept of the world and the people in it. In previous novels, Maisie has emerged as stolid and kind and full of good deeds. She’s the kind of do-gooder who will buy you a house or save you from financial ruin but take herself very seriously. There are signs that a new Maisie is emerging and that she may allow herself to have fun occasionally.

There is even a hopeful sign that Maisie and James will yet have a good time together as a couple, especially when she doesn’t try to find him guilty of living too well for her tastes. There is a glimpse of this as they enjoy ice cream together in a little market that Maisie remembers from her childhood. And it will be interesting to see what comes next, apart from world war.

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

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