The winds of change
Winspear's atmospheric mysteries evoke the turbulent years after WWI
Who would have thought it? A prim 1930s British gumshoe is one of the freshest, most modern heroines in recent memory. With the third installment in author Jacqueline Winspear's mystery series, Maisie Dobbs takes her place in the upper echelon of literary female detectives, right next to Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta the main difference being that unlike her thoroughly modern counterparts, Maisie Dobbs lives in post-World War I London. In Pardonable Lies, we find Maisie Dobbs' private investigation practice flourishing. Her compassionate yet methodical approach to her work has made her services much sought after. Still, although more than a decade has passed, her gruesome work as a nurse in a casualty clearing station in France during the war continues to plague her. When the powerful Sir Cecil Lawton hires her to discover the truth about his son's death while serving as a pilot in the war, Dobbs is forced to return to France and face her own awful memories.
Rich with historical detail and packing several interwoven mysteries for Maisie to untangle, Pardonable Lies is as stylish as a whodunit gets. Winspear paints a haunting picture of how it must have been to be young at that moment in history, with a gingerly hopeful world still reeling but also slowly rebuilding after the war. The devastating human toll of World War I cannot be overstated the war virtually decimated an entire generation of young men. It is estimated that two million young women faced the prospect of living their lives without husbands. Very much a woman of her time, Maisie in some ways also resembles a single woman circa 2005 she not only owns her own business, she has collected an eclectic group of friends, found herself a handsome young doctor to date and even is considering buying her own home.
"Life was never going to be as these women had expected it to be," says Winspear, who spoke to BookPage from her home in southern California, where she had just returned from back-to-back trips to New York and England to promote her current book and research her next one. "They had to make a life alone, and were fiercely independent. They had to work; they had to find companionship in other ways. The whole period is one of immense change and turmoil." Long fascinated with the role of women between the first and second world wars, Winspear was eager to continue exploring this new reality for women in Pardonable Lies. Maisie clearly feels the pressure of making her business a success, and she also experiences the subtle prejudice against spinster women when she seeks a loan to buy a home. Winspear's fascinating peek into the life of a long-ago generation adds depth that makes the Maisie Dobbs series so difficult to define: it's part mystery and part historical fiction, with a dash of love story thrown in.
Although Winspear has won Agatha Awards for both Maisie Dobbs and Birds of a Feather, the first two books in the series, she is still amazed when she hears one of her books described as a mystery that reads like a novel. "Well, why shouldn't it?" asks Winspear.
Although she's a fan of mystery writers such as Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman, Winspear admits she is more likely to read nonfiction, particularly biographies, which satisfy her nosy tendencies. "Because I write mysteries, I very rarely read mysteries," she says. "I know that's a sin—or is it?" She finds herself drawn to the genre as an author because of the particular challenges of writing a compelling mystery that also captures human elements.
"A mystery offers an enormous landscape with which to work," she says. "With a mystery, everything must come right in the end as much as possible. Yet life doesn't give perfect endings. Life is a journey. So this challenges an author: give readers something that rings true, and that also satisfies them." To make sure Pardonable Lies did ring true, Winspear paid a visit to the site of a casualty clearing station cemetery in Belgium. It was to these mobile hospitals that the wounded were brought in the middle of combat, and they were the scenes of some of the bloodiest, most horrific moments of the war as doctors and nurses of many nationalities worked to save as many lives as possible.
A pivotal scene in the book has Maisie returning to such a spot, and Winspear wanted to be sure she got it right.
"The rain was sideways across the land," Winspear recalls of her pilgrimage. "The cemetery was no bigger than someone's backyard garden. It was a very emotional experience. I wanted to know, how would it be if you had spent a significant point in your girlhood where you saw such terrible things?" This painstaking research and loyalty to the truth of the time in which Maisie lives is important to Winspear, but she is careful never to sacrifice story for the sake of historical accuracy. A graceful writer, Winspear brings 1930s London alive, describing the clothes, the food and the manners of the era without ever getting bogged down in details.
"The truth of the matter is, I'm a storyteller first and foremost," she says. "Everything else has to be in support of the story. I just want to reflect the spirit of the era." She suspects current events might have something to do with the success of the Maisie Dobbs series. "We're living in what are perceived as uncertain times in this country," Winspear said. " When you read something historical, you know we got through it and life goes on. When you read a mystery, you know that in the end everything will be right in the world. We need some of that." Winspear, who moved to the United States from England in 1990, is already at work on the fourth Maisie Dobbs book. She pledges to continue the series as long as she feels the stories continue to offer something original.
"It has to be fresh for me," she said. "Maisie Dobbs has to grow and change like we all do. If she's not, it's stagnant. A reader comes back to serial characters to see how they've changed."
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.