Maisie Dobbs is always working against the odds, and in this episode of her investigative career nothing is made straightforward. In this novel she is trying to maintain the work of her office in dealing with cases brought to her by various people. Any challenge brought to her at the time while this particular book is set is made more complex by the fact that it is May 1940. While London has not yet been tested by German bombing raids, there is a threat as everyone is urged to carry their gas mask. Many young people have already volunteered or have been expected to join the armed forces, including the now established RAF. Children and others have left London for supposedly safer areas, which has led to issues with family members being exiled. A lot of concern is being expressed by those who remember a conflict only little more than twenty years previously, aware of those thousands of men and some women who did not return from theatres of war. Maisie, Billy and her other friends have got vivid memories and scars of what has happened to them and those whom they loved.
There is a sense of threat to all the characters within this book, part of a long series. There are many points which refer back to events in the previous books, and it can be read as a standalone investigation of the early part of the Second World War. Maisie’s central character allows lots of emotions to be expressed, as she is a relatively wealthy woman with her own business and excellent connections. Her own past as a clever working class girl who was offered the chance of a Cambridge education, who nursed near the front line in the First World War and lost her first love is central to her understanding of war. Her own tragedies in the more recent past explain much of her own affection for friends who have an appreciation of what she has lost.
As she searches for the truth surrounding the illness and death of a civilian worker, there is a theme of the importance of reserved occupation status. The increasing danger to those men already serving in the army, navy and airforce is expressed as close friends’ fear for their loved ones. While the mystery of the paint is central to the book, there are times when other events almost outweigh it. It is not a fast paced investigation as Maisie and others are more than distracted by dangers to those that they love. In this book Maisie’s acute psychological techniques are toned down a little, which makes for a more conventional read. It is not the most cheerful of books, but that is standard for Winspear’s writing, and the integrity of her characters, setting and plot does make for a solid read.
This is not the most recent entry in this series, and there is happily more to come from Maisie and her associates even as they are plunged into more terrible situations which emerge in an all encompassing war. The confidence with which the small points of life in 1940 are explored is remarkable, and the bonds of affection with which the network of friends, employees and contacts surround Maisie are a distinguishing feature of this and all the Maisie Dobbs books. I have been enjoying this series for many years, and look forward to more novels to come.