A for­mi­da­ble wo­man liv­ing up to dif­fi­cult times

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Muriel Dob­bin Muriel Dob­bin is a for­mer White House and na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter for McClatchy news­pa­pers and the Bal­ti­more Sun.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR By Jac­que­line Win­spear Harper, $27.99, 352 pages

Maisie Dobbs might be clas­si­fied as a se­cret weapon judg­ing by her courage and fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion as she plunges into wars.

Only a few years ago, she was bat­tling the Nazis as a spy in Hitler’s Munich. This time she marks the be­gin­ning of World War II by a clan­des­tine trip to Brus­sels in the course of track­ing down the killers of a for­mer re­sis­tance worker. In-be­tween she is sign­ing up for all kinds of mil­i­tary du­ties, work­ing with in­tel­li­gence forces and Scot­land Yard, whether they like it or not.

Jac­que­line Win­spear has cre­ated a vivid niche of her own in look­ing back at re­cent con­flicts, cast­ing Maisie in the rel­a­tively lim­ited roles that were oc­cu­pied by women in those days. She has moved her from a house­maid to the aris­toc­racy, al­though Maisie fre­quently gives the im­pres­sion that she has never felt quite com­fort­able with the ti­tle she in­her­ited from her late hus­band. Maisie stays Maisie, and no­body could ac­cuse her of elo­quence of lan­guage. She is of­ten as ab­bre­vi­ated as she is brisk and if Maisie has a fail­ing it is her in­abil­ity to re­lax, not that she has much time to de­vote to fri­vol­ity even if she were so in­clined.

But Maisie has de­vel­oped into a lively and lik­able char­ac­ter and if she is a lit­tle too deco­rous so­cially this was the way Maisies were in those days. The au­thor skill­fully cap­tures the at­mos­phere of the times, es­pe­cially in this case where she is por­tray­ing the strange “phony war” that came on the heels of Bri­tain’s en­try into World War II.

She is sharply ac­cu­rate about he sud­den sand­bag­ging of streets and roads, the black­ing out of doors and win­dows and the pre­ma­ture evac­u­a­tion of Lon­don’s chil­dren as the na­tion pre­pared for the ar­rival of the Ger­man Luft­waffe. And when the en­emy planes did come blaz­ing in, killing thou­sands of Lon­don­ers, there was a real irony in the fact that many of the chil­dren had re­turned to the dan­ger­ous city rather than stay in the coun­try­side.

While Maisie is chas­ing mur­der­ers and try­ing to trust a strange in­tel­li­gence agent, the au­thor in­jects wel­come hu­man­ity into her plot in the form of Anna, a four-year-old or­phaned evac­uee who doesn’t talk. Maisie of course be­comes devoted to the si­lent child, restor­ing her to the world of those who talk by in­tro­duc­ing her to Emma, a Ger­man shep­herd which is also or­phaned as a re­sult of the mur­der of her owner.

Anna and Emma take to each other and even­tu­ally Anna talks to Maisie, who by this time has given her the gift of a white pony. Anna is for­tu­nate in that she has been taken in by Maisie’s fam­ily, in­clud­ing the fa­ther who knows his daugh­ter bet­ter than any­one else in the world. Maisie is so fond of him she even takes his ad­vice.

Ms. Win­spear is es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to the rigid class dis­tinc­tions that prob­a­bly still ex­ist in the United King­dom and were a lot more rigid in the 1920s and ’30s. The war re­duced the bar­ri­ers yet did not elim­i­nate them, a fact that Maisie re­mains aware of. There is a telling point made about the fact that lit­tle Anna with her curly black hair and faintly sal­low com­plex­ion may face the kind of dif­fi­cul­ties that come on the heels of any racial vari­a­tion. Anna and Maisie have much in com­mon, yet it re­mains ques­tion­able whether the child will find a home with her bene­fac­tress that would not come with a new set of prob­lems.

Maisie doesn’t quite win the war, but she solves all her cur­rent crim­i­nal prob­lems, un­masks the mur­derer and even leaves the un­com­mu­nica­tive in­tel­li­gence agent some­what sheep­ish that she had not been more trust­ing of a wo­man who is per­sua­sive enough to climb onto a se­cret plane for a se­cret flight to coax cru­cial in­for­ma­tion out of a Bel­gian priest. Af­ter that coup, driv­ing the wounded in a truck dur­ing air raids is not too tax­ing for Maisie. She is a for­mi­da­ble wo­man who lives up to the dif­fi­cult times she lives in.

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