I haven’t seen all the Maisie Dobbs series, the more the pity. I rather like Maisie. She was a nurse in the Great War and has her own variety of shellshock. Leaving nursing, she was trained by a psychologist and uses that knowledge in her sleuthing. Set in England in the late 1920’s (at the start of the series) to 1931 (present book), it lets us look into an oft ignored time period. Maisie is very sensitive to the needs of former soldiers especially that of her assistant Billy Beale who suffers war wounds both physically and mentally.
In the opening of this, it’s a few days before Christmas when out to meet a client Maisie and Billy witness another wounded veteran commit suicide with a hand grenade. Tragic as that is, it is only the beginning. Maisie is soon brought in by the police who have come to respect her abilities but more importantly for her connections into the academic world. Someone is threatening to bring London to its knees unless it extends war benefits to veterans including those whose wounds are mental (the book claims that number was above 50,000 which seems stunningly high but I didn’t look into it) and it looks like he plans to do it using mustard gas.
For those alive today we worry about smart bombs, nuclear weapons and bioterrorism. We’re not that familiar with mustard and chlorine gases that were used in WWI. They were horrible things and even I knew some but not all about what was in the book. Trust me, it’s terrifying threat.
Maisie and her police contacts Stratton, MacFarland and Darby work to find this man, sometimes aided sometimes hindered by the military’s special investigators as they go. As Maisie starts turning over stones in the psychiatric world, she gets pulled in deep. In the background is a subplot with her assistant Billy who lost his daughter (I’m assuming last book which I must have missed) and his wife’s resultant deep depression and psychotic break. The really interesting thing is seeing Maisie against the historical background of the first real rise of feminism into the ‘men’s work’ with female doctors and detectives (1920’s especially saw a period of freedom that got reversed in the 40’s-50’s and reexploded of course in the 60’s). It’s a good story but less of mystery. That’s a trend I’m seeing. It reminds me of Columbo when the audience knew the villain from the get-go and the fun was watching Columbo figure it out. We don’t really know the villain in this but we see his letters and there really aren’t that many red herrings. The story is in how Maisie gets to him.