I like, as an alternative to ploughing through more worthy reads such as Secret Scripture, reading series of books. Often they are set in the regency period, but there is an enormous choice of fake Golden Age mysteries, often featuring vaguely aristocratic women, who end up solving murder mysteries. (See any good library for details)
One of the best written is the Maisie Dobbs series, by Jacqueline Winspear. Her central character is a young woman who is sponsored for education by a benefactor who picks up that a servant girl is spending a lot of time in the library. She goes to college, only to have her studies interrupted by the First World War, where she works as a nurse. She is injured, and there is the carnage and after effects of battle to deal with. There is romance, gory injuries, and sensitive writing on those whose lives were turned upside down by loss. There are eight or nine books to follow, as Maisie trains as a detective not necessarily of just murder, though death and murder often feature. She is attracted by the spiritual dimension of solving mysteries, and her teacher and mentor is an interesting character. It would not be strictly necessary to read these books in order, but would help if you can find them and tackle them as there are a lot of loose threats which go from book to book.
As to this book in the series, the latest, be aware it is not fun in any respect. At least one author suggested that a writer should put their characters through the wringer to see what they do. This book takes that to extremes before the book has even begun. So our main character, not for the first time, finds herself tackling a mysterious death against a background of her own grief. For the first time this book is not set in Britain, especially a fog filled London of backstreets and social inequality. Gibraltar in the late 1930s was a place of refugees from the Spanish Civil War just over the border, and those who have lived there for generations are challenged by events and causes so near and yet, politically, so far from their experience. As Hitler’s forces mass and practise their offensive tactics, Maisie finds herself confused and threatened not only by the obvious dangers but also those who want her to stop looking into a political scene shifting and changing by the day. She is also being influenced by her own grief and that of those still in England. I must admit to being underwhelmed by this element. Even though I have carefully kept up with this series, I still got a bit confused. Winspear is trying to achieve a lot in this book, not least a picture of the Spanish situation at the time, and I’m not sure she achieves everything. Her insistence on describing every single outfit Maisie wears can get a little boring, especially as she has a never ending supply of fresh white shirts ( magically washed, dried and ironed?) which does not work out from her minimal packing. I also find her spiritual seeking a bit distracting, as I would enjoy a few more clues and a little less intuition.
These, however, are small quibbles with a series of books that take on the themes of women surviving alone in that (for me at least) fascinating interwar period. They are not as easy to read as some of these series, and lack the sometimes outrageous humour of other stories, but are probably all the better for it. These are literary murder mysteries, with an excellent background of research and atmosphere. I like that some of the mysteries are not neatly tied up, and that the grief of victims families is not wiped out by discovering the murderer or circumstances of death. There are times when I wish the writer would allow a little more happiness to exist, but reality always intrudes.
Last year Winspear produced a non – Maisie Dobbs book, partly to mark, I imagine, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. This stand alone book features characters, mainly two women, who find themselves in very different situations in August 1914. The way that they react, and the pressures on them, mean that they follow interesting paths of fear, duty and supporting those that they love. There are the influences of family and the battle for women’s rights as well as the terrors of the front. This novel may be a good starting place for those wishing to find out about what women actually did in the war time, as well as those who want to read a Winspear novel without the full biography of any one character in mind.
Overall, if you enjoy Sarah Waters books and or books set in the interwar period, these are good books to read. If you get hooked, good luck in finding all the books!