07 October 2010


I've read several of Jacqueline Winspear's novels and really liked the atmosphere she creates. The novels are set in London during the early 1930s with World War I and the depression important for context. Well, not the depression so much, but the post-war experience of Winspear's main character, Maisie Dobbs, is vital. There are regular references to the depression, but Dobbs and her assistant are mostly observers. Dobbs is a private investigator and people wealthy enough to hire her haven't been hurt by the economic disaster very much. So, Maisy Dobbs and Billy Beale are gainfully employed.

It's Winspear's use of language and attention to detail that create the atmosphere of the 1930s. I can't swear that it's the 1930s atmosphere she creates, but it's definitely not a late 20th or early 21st century atmosphere. Words, phrases, and bits of material culture all contribute to a sense of another time. A romantic re-imagining of a time long past. (Maisie would have been about the same age as my grandparents.)

One of the reasons I have kept coming back to read more of Winspear's books is that they haven't strayed into romance novel territory. The stories focus on a mystery and the steps Maisie and Billy take to uncover the hidden facts. Maisie is a young, single woman and you might expect romance to be in the cards. But Winspear has created a woman who was a front-line nurse in France during World War I. She returned with traumatic stresses. The young doctor she loved and served with also came back from the war, but he was damaged much more severely. A head injury left him an invalid in a hospital for a dozen years after the war. Romance was on hold for Maisie.

But, a book or so ago, the injured doctor died. Maisie had a date or two and a serious suitor whom she turned down. In this book, The Mapping of Love and Death, romance blossoms.

But the romance is not just about Maisie and a new suitor or idealized memories of another time. Maisie is trying to find out what happened to a young American, a volunteer in the British forces during the war who went missing. In 1932, his body was found in France and, with it, a packet of love letters from an unnamed British nurse. The American parents want to identify the woman and learn more about their son's last days. (Of course it's more complicated than that because the post-mortem on the soldier's skeleton suggests he was murdered.) But there's the soldier's romance from 1915. There's a romantic image of a beautiful valley in California that the soldier visited before the war. There's an obvious romance still going on between the grieving American parents. There's are filial relationships between Maisie and her father and between Maisie and her dying mentor. And more. There is romance of one kind or another throughout the book. So, when Maisie is approached by a new suitor and she accepts his suit, it's not out of place. It does make me wonder how Maisie will continue her career if she marries into a proper upper-class family in London of the mid-1930s. Charity work, maybe. But investigative work for paying clients? I think not. The post-war, depression years were ones of great opportunity for women in Britain, but there were some things that proper women just didn't do.

In any case, in spite of all the romance and romance novel-like attributes in this book, I enjoyed it. It was a little day dream away from the fall of 2010 to an idealized time in early 20th century London. The characters are attractive. The story telling is well done and sometimes compelling. The most unbelievable thing is that Maisie's 1930 MG doesn't break down -- ever. The reputation those cars had doesn't support such reliability. Ah, escapism. Sometimes it's just the thing.

Have you escaped into a romantic past? How'd it go for you? Have you escaped into Jacqueline Winspear's London of 75+ years ago? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Jacqueline Winspear's web site
Jacqueline Winspear talks about the book

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