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Historical Mysteries

Among the Mad, Jacqueline Winspear, Henry Holt, $25.00.

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

While not as strong an outing as the last Maisie Dobbs novel, Among the Mad is still a great read and remarkably timely, despite being set in 1931. In this book, as is often the case with Winspear, the opening scene—and the writing—are so compelling that it pushes you as a reader through the rest of the book. While Winspear isn't the most consistent prose stylist (leave that to the likes of Thomas Cook, Louise Penny or James Lee Burke) she is still capable of patches of real beauty and originality in her writing, and it always keeps me coming back for more, as does the character of Maisie herself, one of the strongest in mystery fiction.

In the opening scene something makes Maisie aware of a beggar—certainly a wounded war veteran—on the street; but she gets to him too late. He blows himself up, leaving Maisie with reopened war wounds of her own. Though she goes to her father's for Christmas, she's called away on Boxing Day by Scotland Yard, and through them, the Special Branch. The dead man has left a note, citing Maisie by name, and implying that this bombing is not the first, but one of a series.

Terrorism, anyone? The feeling of a complete lack of safety or any boundaries of safety are the prime themes of the novel, as Maisie works with Scotland Yard to find the bomber's friend, the one who will be upping the ante. It feels, in 2009, very familiar, though Winspear places it in context, using both the character of Maisie's friend Priscilla and that of the bomber himself, whose notes we as readers are allowed to see. Priscilla, despite her husband, family, and a comfortable life, still doesn't feel "at home" in London. As Maisie says to her, "...that's what we're all looking for, isn't it? A home. We're looking for where we belong." In a mirrored theme, the bomber writes in one of his notes, "Home doesn't exist for us..."

As both Maisie and Priscilla struggle to find the place where they "fit", their stories are mirrored by the increasing desperation of the bomber, who writes "I don't think I can stand another year of invisibility". As Maisie is made to feel by the officers of Scotland Yard that she is "part of the group", the bomber is just the opposite, and Winspear paints a very bleak portrait of the men who suffered in the trenches and who were then pushed back into the world with no pension though they were psychologically unfit to live on their own.

Winspear's plots have become increasingly complicated and interesting, which is a nice foil to the character development of Maisie, who, were she functioning in today's world, would probably be known as a profiler. As always there are several memorable sidebar charters, as well as a subplot involving Maisie's assistant Billy's wife, Doreen, who is not dealing with the loss of her daughter (two books ago) at all well. In various ways Doreen's story and concerns are tied into the rest of the plot and themes.

I had a customer in recently whose son or husband came in with her and said, in a surprised tone, "I got a great book here!" It was the correspondence between Hammett and Chandler (whose name, amazingly, this person could not remember). And then he said in equal amazement, "These men were so intelligent! So witty! So thoughtful!" As the general attitude is that mystery is mere "genre" fiction, a novel like Winspear's can easily remind anyone that the themes and intelligence of mystery writers are the equal of any writer's. I had to bite my tongue with the customer, but I don't have to be so circumspect in a book review. So enjoy the richness of this author and many others in this fine genre—there's so much to appreciate.

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