"The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin"
The Second World War remains a fascinating period, close enough to us in time to be relevant and distant enough for the customs and events to still capture our imagination. London in 1940 is a dangerous place to live. The German air force conduct daily raids, and the city's populace have been ordered to carry their gas masks with them at all times. The peril is getting closer to chief investigator and psychologist Maisie Dobbs, who finds herself looking into the disappearance of 16-year-old apprentice painter Joe Coombes. Joe's father, Phil, arrives at Maisie's first floor office in Fitzroy Square asking for help. Joe was apprenticed to Yates and Sons for special war work to paint airfields and RAF stations with a distinct type of fire retardant, but Phil and his wife, Sally, have not heard from Joe for days.
Maisie is not afraid to take the world by storm nor apply her considerable fact-finding skills to the task at hand. Fearing for Joe's safety, she tells her assistant, Billy Beale, that they must get to work without delay. With England now at war, thousands of sons and daughters are working in jobs just like Joe's. Apprently, the emulsion Joe was using was giving him terrible headaches, but the government--wanting the work done as quickly as possible--sent young painters out with the best fire retardant they had at hand.
Maisie is used to thinking on her feet and making snap decisions when a life is threatened or an investigation reaches a crucial point. She's wise to take the advice of Billy: that it's always the things you first notice. Sally Coombes has kept her two other children, Archie and Vivian, on a tight leash while Joe was reportedly getting a boatload of cash for an apprentice. As Maisie's thoughts dart from one question to the next, the ripples of suspicion form around the contours of information gathered so far. She wonders how the men working for Mike Yates actually fare in the countryside. Joe Coombes was working in close proximity to the country's source of wealth, and Yates had accepted a lucrative contract that was potentially harmful to his workers.
The novel's themes are bittersweet: with war comes the end of innocence, but also the burgeoning of truth and perhaps a braver, less hypocritical world. Maisie, Billy, Sandra, best friend Pricilla, and Maisie's family back in bucolic Chelstone are unnerved by the constant news that Britain's vulnerable army is fighting for its life. They're also anxious about the possibility of an eventual evacuation of the expeditionary force from the coast of France, where an army of men--husbands, brothers, sweethearts and sons--are in danger of being slaughtered. In the case of imminent invasion, the unexpected hero is 16-year-old Tim Partridge, Pricilla's young son. With his big heart and gallant personality, Tim takes to the high seas, running away to help with the Dunkirk evacuations on a motorboat belonging to his best friend's father.
Will Maisie survive the shocks to come? Old ideas are dying, replaced by a new stalwart sense of duty. How long before Hitler's armies draw even closer and their aircraft rain down a Blitzkrieg of terror? On the hunt for clues, Maisie travels through the quiet hamlets of her beloved Kentish farmland. Back in the grainy darkness of Fitzroy Square, Maisie grows suspicious of a sliver of light through the blackout curtains in the flat of the tenant who lives downstairs. Painting her images in beautiful, wide brushstrokes, Winspearexplores war's battleground. The soldiers return, coming off the trains with terrible wounds, as if they had "seen into the jaws of hell." Utterly exhausted and emaciated, they try to hold up their injured friends.
While Pricilla hounds Maisie to do more in the ambulance corps, Maisie worries about the fate of Pricilla's eldest son, who is learning to fly one of the many Hurricanes which will soon race across the Weald of Kent. Winspear is a master at creating this typically British scene, where all the familiar supporting characters essentially weave in and out of Maisie's story. Essential to the tale is Winspear's compelling portrayal of men like Tim--good, loyal young men who shouldn't have to die while their parents go through the rest of their lives saying "at least my boy was brave."
The beauty of Winspear's series lies not just in its unpredictability but also in the way she allows us to travel through so much of Maisie's life. In this sad story of secret sorrows, all is centered around Maisie's compassionate, aching heart. Maisie still struggles to come to terms with the loss of her beloved James. He's now long gone, along with all hopes of motherhood. Maisie thinks she might even lose the feeling of his smooth face and touch. Only through her deep suffering does Maisie, yet again, emerge with a quiet strength and dignity that comes with acceptance of her responsibility to her friends, her family, and her country.