The Washington Post
Fans of British private detective Maisie Dobbs have a new heroine to admire
It’s been 20 years since Jacqueline Winspear introduced us to Maisie Dobbs, a woman of high intelligence and unimpeachable character. Fans have lifted this indomitable British private detective to cult status, and a willingness to emulate her has spawned a book and the website called “What Would Maisie Do?”
After 17 Maisie novels, fans have a new character to love: Elinor White, an enigmatic war hero at the center of “The White Lady,” Winspear’s second standalone novel. White is very much her own woman, but she’s just as inspirational as Maisie.
Like the Maisie Dobbs novels, “The White Lady” is steeped in the stark historical realism of life in Britain during and between the 20th century’s two world wars. But unlike the Maisie books, “The White Lady” does not carry a cozy-ish veneer; it’s darker and more foreboding.
Maisie’s character was forged in the white-hot fires of grief sparked by the early loss of her mother and her time as a frontline field nurse in World War I; Elinor’s mettle and steely demeanor grew out of her experience as a child saboteur in Belgium during World War I.
Elinor, her sister and her mother were part of a Belgian resistance group called La Dame Blanche, a real-life organization bankrolled by Britain and composed of teens and adult women who worked to undermine the German army after its invasion of Belgium in 1914. Elinor is 12 when she learns to sabotage rail lines, causing derailments, the destruction of armaments and the deaths of countless enemy soldiers. She learns to shoot a gun and kill with a knife or a sharpened pencil. At 14, she commits a violent act to protect her sister from an attempted rape. After that, Elinor and her family flee to England.
When we first meet her in this novel, it’s 1947, and the 40something Elinor is living in the small English village of Shacklehurst in “a grace-and-favor” house gifted by the monarchy to people who have done extraordinary things for their country.
The locals assume Elinor had been a lady-in-waiting, but she paid for this honor with her blood and courage during both world wars. Elinor knows she earned “every brick, every peg tile on the roof, every door and every stick of furniture,” but the payback is the dark shadows of guilt and trauma that perpetually plague her. She starts each morning scanning the land around her estate for intruders. When she leaves home, she places tape on the door frame so she can detect if someone enters the house while she’s out.
Elinor doesn’t talk to her neighbors until she meets Jim, Rose and Susie Mackie. The young family is under threat from the organized-crime family run by Jim’s grandfather. Jim has spent years avoiding his family, but the gang wants Jim back in the fold for a major heist. When the Mackies resist and Elinor witnesses an attack on Rose, she makes it her mission to save them.
There is a scene in this novel that is almost too heartbreaking to read. Its violence is palpable and its consequences sickening. It involves a child in a Belgian village where Elinor is working with the resistance during World War II, and what happens to that child has broken Elinor. It is because of that child that Elinor wants to save the Mackies, especially Susie. Protecting them, she hopes, will in some way redeem her for what happened to that child in Belgium three years earlier.
Elinor’s war with London’s most feared crime family opens the door for Winspear to write about the dark side of post-world War II Britain, the years of austerity and shortages and the criminal element that came back from war with bad intentions. “Wartime conscription had sucked in the bad along with the good,” she writes. And the former came home “battle-hardened and with darker skills in the art of killing.” They returned with an addiction to the adrenaline rush they experienced on the battlefield and a yearning to steal, kill and violate anyone who got in their way.
Elinor’s single-handed battle against the coldblooded gang is tied to this novel’s timely theme: how men have always underestimated women and how women have used that to their advantage. Working with La Dame Blanche, the young Elinor was told by a resistance leader that the Germans never suspect women of subterfuge, but “they have no idea what we are capable of inflicting upon them.” And that “when a woman rose up to prove her mettle, she claimed a power that would be hers for a lifetime.”
That lesson worked to Elinor’s advantage during her war service and as she hunts down the Mackies. She’s unseen by men because she’s “a woman of a certain age rendered invisible by her vintage.” What they don’t realize is that her cloak of invisibility makes her a deadly force. That Elinor uses this power for good is among the many reasons she is such an appealing character — and one I hope readers will get to know better someday.