In the world that Maisie Dobbs ("Psychologist and Investigator") inhabits, peace is an elusive phenomenon, even 13 years after the Armistice put an end to the trench warfare that she witnessed as a nurse. In the aftermath of the Great War, Maisie now finds herself battling with the legacy of that conflict. In Winspear's five previous novels, she has dealt with the aftermath of mysterious wartime Zeppelin attacks, evil doings at a hospital for disfigured soldiers and myriad other crimes tied to the aftermath of the war.
In this, Winspear's sixth novel in the series, Maisie is unwittingly dragged into a case that involves terrorist threats. After witnessing a man she believes to be a troubled veteran blow himself up with a hand grenade, her name is mentioned in a threatening letter that another soldier sends to Scotland Yard and top government ministers. Along with her former admirer, Inspector Stratton, Maisie must work with Special Branch police to fend off a chemical weapons threat from a disturbed individual demanding that the government treat veterans -- disabled or otherwise -- fairly and honorably. It's a difficult case for Maisie, not only because she must grapple with her own mixed emotions -- she has seen, all too clearly, the struggle that the men she once nursed in France have when they try to return civilian life -- but because she is also grappling with the personal problems of her assistant, Billy Beale, and her closest friend.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, given this somber backdrop, the novel often feels very intense and even downright melancholy. That's appropriate, given the subject matter. Still, this would have been a stronger book had Winspear had a lighter touch with both plot and characters. (I have read serial killer novels that felt less dark and depressing.) Still, Winspear's writing is exceptionally strong and powerful, doing justice to the themes she chooses to explore. She also avoids the easy plot twists; Maisie, a complex character who has risen to her current status from life as a servant, has yet to find romance in her postwar life.
I am beginning to wonder, however, how long a series with such a narrow focus can endure. Shell shock and the trauma of rebuilding a life after a war is not a theme that offers enough that is new and fresh to remain the core of Maisie's investigations and Winspear's writing for many more books. Yes, it's unquestionably important, but at some point the reader is going to start to shrug his or her shoulders, saying that they've heard it all before. Moreover, as 1932 dawns in Maisie's fictional world, other factors are now emerging as important. There is a global depression taking hold, the Blackshirts are marching in London (a fact that gets one short, cryptic reference in this book) and within a year, Hitler will take power in Germany. I, for one, hope that Winspear finds a way to blend her fascination with the Great War with a more diverse array of mysteries for Maisie to investigate and plots that depend as much upon what is happening contemporaneously as what happened more than a decade previously. Continuing to revisit the same territory without some new element will, I fear, cause some of her readers, myself among them, will begin to fall by the wayside.
For those who have not yet stumbled across Rennie Airth, I'd recommend two other mysteries set in the same time period: The Blood-Dimmed Tide (Penguin Mysteries)and River of Darkness. I was elated to discover this superb author has a third book coming out this summer. While I'll give Winspear's latest four stars, either of Airth's books -- which deal with similar issues -- easily capture a fifth star. Charles Todd's longer series features a Scotland Yard detective grappling with shell shock, but who investigates a wide array of crimes, some of which have no connection to the war itself. Increasingly, I am coming to prefer that series to Winspear's books, simply because of the variety of themes the books explore.