Friday, April 22, 2011

Jacqueline Winspear sets her mystery between the wars.

I read about this “Maisie Dobbs” novel and recognized that it was a risk to jump into the middle of series with six titles already. But I needn’t have worried. This novel is fine on its own, and I now have several more novels to read and enjoy.

The Mapping of Love and Death

Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death (338 pages, Harper Perennial, $14.99) is set in the depressed England of the early 1930s. Like much recent British fiction, however, its real interest lies in its fascination with the First World War.

The story involves a young American, of British parentage, who feels the call when war is declared and goes off to fight in Europe. Before going he had managed to purchase a tract of land in California where it was likely that there would be some oil reserves. The novel opens with a stunning scene of this young man, Michael Compton, who is himself a cartographer, surveying the scene of his purchase and taking pleasure in the soft undulations of the California landscape.

Michael dies during the war. As a cartographer, he was a valuable asset to the military. Maps of the French and Belgian landscape were hard to come by, especially since French and English maps were not drawn to the same scale, and chaps like Michael were necessary for lining up proper artillery fire. But a stray bomb, it seems, blew up the bunker where he and his crew were working.

That seems like the story anyway, when Michael’s parents bring Maisie Dobbs onto the scene. It seems that they have seen some love letters in Michael’s belongings, and they would like the private investigator to find out who she was. What Maisie discovers, however, when she looks at the coroner’s report, is that Michael seems to have been murdered, with a blow to the head, before the blast that destroyed his bunker.

So Maisie has two jobs before her, and both involve looking deeply into the life of the cartographer who lost his life in World War I. As a result, she finds herself interviewing family members and retired military men, even as she searches among nursing units for the possible identity of the mystery woman to whom Michael wrote his heart-felt missives.

Winspear does a wonderful job of creating both cultures, both the foggy and depressed London of the 1930s and the earlier wartime city with all its energy and confusion. Throughout the narrative, we also follow Maisie’s own emotional life, which is nothing if not lively; and with her occasional trips out of London in her MG, we are able to construct a quite full history and a rich set of present options.

The novel is truly engaging as a mystery, but it is also compelling as a personal story of Maisie’s burying old ghosts and finding a new direction. Because Winspear drops so many hints about Maisie’s past, it is impossible not to want to go back and fill some of those details in. I am not sure whether I will do that first of read the latest Maisie Dobbs novel which is waiting for me on the shelf.

How delightful it is to find a series like this.

Jacqueline Winspear

The Mapping of Love and Death is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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