A formidable woman living up to difficult times
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.