Monday, July 10, 2006

A sizeable benefit of reading (and reviewing) crime fiction is the chance to meet strong, smart women solving puzzles while moving through a freshly-researched historical period. Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs hit the ground of 1920s England running, and in her third book is keeping up that admirable pace while widening her range.
Maisie's diverse background energizes the series: daughter of a greengrocer, hired as a housemaid and then sent to Cambridge by a wealthy woman employer who spotted her intellect and a leading psychologist who sharpened her perceptions about people, Dobbs served as a nurse at some of World War One's bloodiest battlefields, then returned to London to open a detective agency where humanity and understanding are the specialities of the house.
Two unusual but possibly-linked investigations into the fates of men missing in action and declared dead occupy most of Maisie's time in Pardonable Lies (the title comes from a poem by Sophocles which would almost certainly have been part of the education of a young woman at Cambridge's Girton College): a man who is honoring a deathbed promise to his wife to find out what happened to their aviator son, and an old college friend wanting to know more about her brother's end. Dobbs also tries to prove the innocence of a 13-year-old country girl (the same age as Maisie was when she went into service) who became a prostitute and is now charged with murder.
As in her first two books about Maisie, Winspear shows us how everything she knows and has learned in her various roles influences her work. Spiritualism, which ran rampant in England after World War One - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became an advocate after the loss of a son -- is examined in all its shapes and degrees of honesty, through the eyes of a woman both sharpened by the skepticism of science and softened by a vast compassion for all of those people who, like herself, have seen the worst of what the world has to offer.