A Maisie Dobbs Novel

nolead begins By Jacqueline Winspear

Harper. 338 pp. $25.99

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Frank Wilson

In August 1914, Michael Clifton, a young cartographer, dips into the substantial inheritance left him by his grandfather and buys a parcel of land in California's Santa Ynez Valley. Shortly thereafter, he learns that war has broken out among the Great Powers of Europe.

So, instead of returning to his family in Boston, he takes the train to New York and from there heads to England to join up.

Michael is American, but his father was born in England and Michael's mapmaking skills are of value to the British Expeditionary Forces. The red tape that might have gotten in the way of his enlistment proves no barrier at all.

Like just about everyone at the time, Michael expects the war will be a brief and glorious parade of skirmishes. In 1916, he is reported missing and presumed dead.

Private investigator Maisie Dobbs learns of this 16 years later when she receives a letter from a friend who is also a friend of the Clifton family. Michael Clifton's body has recently been found by a French farmer. An examination of the remains indicates that Michael did not die from the artillery bombardment that killed his comrades. He was murdered, killed with a blow to the head with a heavy, blunt object.

Maisie had been in the war herself as a nurse, and had been wounded. Worse, she had witnessed horrors she could never forget. After her return, she lived for a while in Lambeth:

She had realized, even then, that her choice to live in a place so compromised, among people so wretched, was due to the fact that she was still numb. Living in such troubled quarters was tantamount to touching her skin with a hot needle - it reminded her that she was still alive . . . that the war might have taken so much, but it had not taken her life.

Michael's parents have traveled to England, and bring to Maisie's office their son's diary and a cache of letters to an English woman they would like to find.

It is after their visit that things get exciting: The Cliftons are brutally attacked and nearly killed in their hotel room. The weapon would appear to be a heavy, blunt object. Not long after, Maisie herself is mugged and her briefcase stolen. Eventually, another corpse turns up. The dead man is one of Michael's army buddies.

Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries will not be to everyone's taste, especially those who like their violence up-close, personal, and bruising. Winspear's world is demure compared to, say, Stieg Larsson's. She writes in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. This is the mystery novel as an exercise in form, character, and atmosphere.

But it is not without its shadows:

To an outsider, the journey from the west end of London to the east end might have seemed like leaving a full buffet dinner with the finest china, for bread and water at a rough-hewn table. The houses on many streets were still without running water, so women gathered at the communal pump to fill their buckets and kettles, then huffed and puffed their way home carrying their burden.

Details such as this season Winspear's tale with just the right amount of grit. Maisie herself is a child of the working class, and early in life served as a maid for Lord and Lady Rowan, who were sufficiently impressed by how bright she was to pay for her education. Maisie's assistant, Billy, was a patient of hers in the war. His wife has suffered a breakdown after their young daughter's illness and death, and Billy plaintively dreams of emigrating to Canada.

In other words, there is more here than just nostalgia for a simpler time when most people's manners were better and everyone knew his place and kept to it. There is charm and heartbreak as well. And a nice little network of mystery to tie it all together.