Winspear is a wise and entertaining storyteller. Her Maisie Dobb mysteries are rich in historical detail, reflecting the diverse flavor of a tumultuous historical period
building love, tragedy, and even murder around an authentic, compelling plot. Winspear’s latest details much about England’s preparation for war, the billeting of children from London to the Sussex countryside, the constant test of the air-raid sirens across London, the dark shadows of the barrage balloons floating above the night sky,
and the deserted schools requisitioned for the bomb disposal crews, solders and ambulances.
Although the German Luftwaffe are not yet flying overhead, Maisie and her two loyal employees, Billy and Sandra, carry their gas masks whenever they leave Maisie’s first-floor office in Fitzroy Square to travel across the City to investigate yet another grisly murder.
For Billy, a fresh homicide is opportunity to take his attention off all of this dirty “war business.” Of similar mind, Sandra has been enthusiastically assisting Maisie in the administration of her privately-run detective business since she returned to England from her adventures in Gibraltar and Berlin.
At 11:14 am on the morning of September 3, 1939. Maisie’s wireless crackles with the clipped tones of the Prime Minister declaring war against Germany. As Maisie and her best friend, Priscilla, share this private moment, Maisie feels numb with the “cold, slick air of France” and the memories that have remained with her since the Great War. These memories are put on hold when old colleague Dr. Francesca Thomas arrives at Maisie’s garden flat, asking for help on behalf of a group of Belgian refugees who
stayed on in England after World War I.
About a month ago, refugee Frederick Addens, a 38-year-old railway engineer, was shot point blank through the back of the head close to St Pancreas Station. While Adden’s murder looks to be the hallmark of a professional assassination, the Scotland Yard investigation led by Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell has come to the conclusion that the man who murdered him was just your “more theatrical sort of thief,” a “pull the trigger and run” sort. Dr. Watson thinks that Caldwell’s investigation was too rushed and might have cost valuable time and information. “I want to know who killed him, that is the nub of the matter,” she tells a wary Maisie. Ever the loyal friend, Maisie decides to take on the case
though she senses that the always formidable and trustworthy Francesca is not
being entirely forthcoming.
The matter of Addens’ “designed execution” gives Maisie pause. Had Frederick Addens seem something more coming?
Pragmatic Maisie--still reeling after the devastating death of her husband, James Compton, has no patience with Francesca’s perceived hedging of the truth. Still, she plunges into the investigation
with Billy and Sandra, applying her investigative skills diligently to the work at hand. Then another murder takes place just as the tone of the investigation shifts to the collection of hard, raw evidence. The victim is Albert Durant, a banker working in Central London. Apart from being Belgian and a refugee, there’s no
other evidence that connects the railway worker and the banker.
Beyond an investigation that takes her deep into the bowels of London, Maisie
travels back to the Dower House and Chelstone Manor. There she faces a new challenge: what to do about a homeless, rootless Belgian refugee girl who is being looked after by Maisie’s parents but refuses to speak, perhaps too traumatized by the move to the country and the loss of her family. Maisie’s father, Frankie, suspects that his daughter might be becoming just a little too fond of Anna (“those evacuees are our own refugees, Maisie, and refugees go home”). Maisie
is plagued by different thoughts, each clamoring for attention. Ignoring Detective Caldwell’s warning
(“Your client might be the killer, Miss Dobbs”), Maisie traces the case all the way back to Belgium, where travelling ‘on the QT” she discovers a piece of the puzzle that goes far beyond the brave Belgian resistance soldiers of The Great War.
Although Maisie dominates this tale, the other characters are quite an array, from Billy and Sandra and their personal travails, wealthy do-gooder Rosemary Hartley-Davies
and sympathetic Richard Stratton to glamorous Clarice Littleton, who like Rosemary was once involved in the lives of a number of refugees. Murder aside, Winspear’s lovely phrasing and moody images
contrast with the constant worry of war and Maisie’s rocky pathway toward discovering the real truths behind the darker side of refugee histories.