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Historical Mysteries

The War Against Miss Winter, Kathryn Miller Haines, Harper, $13.95.

Years ago when I was an artist going to art fairs, I went to an artist's workshop in upstate New York with Sandra Freckleton and her husband, Jack Beale. One of the more memorable portions of the workshop was Jack's lecture on modern art - using as an example a Holbein portrait (I think of Jane Seymour) he then transmuted it into the way Picasso might have seen the same face - with the nose sideways, the eyes on one side of the head, etc. "Modern art," he said, with a sweep of his pencil, "is an analysis of classical art." It completely opened my eyes, and made me appreciate Picasso even more than I already did. I think in the same way historical fiction is an analysis of history from a modern perspective. The modern eye of the creator can't be completely stopped up, and it's interesting to see how various writers approach this form of history. Jack Beale would actually call this "post-modern" - as good a definition of the term as any I've ever heard.

The War Against Miss Winter, Kathryn Miller Haines' funny and sweet look at the world of Rosie Winter, a struggling actress in WWII New York, definitely has a post-modern feel. Her look back at the period feels like a loving look back, with humor and period detail included. She uses lots of phrases I've never heard but her inclusion of sentences like "She was my sidekick in this adventure, the scintillating siren who distracted the bad guys long enough for me to get to the root of what was going on.", and "You've been reading the pulps, haven't you? You do realize they're fiction, right? They're not how-to manuals" show that these are indeed a knowing look back, not a part of the past, a feat some historical fiction writers try to pull off (with varying degrees of success). Even the dead man whose death ties all the threads of the story together - the hard drinking, detective magazine reading James McCain - bears a suspiciously familiar nomenclature.

What's also fresh about this book is the theater detail, something Kathryn Miller Haines, who is also an actress, comes by naturally (here she joins other actresses turned mystery writers like Jessica Speart and Cordelia Biddle). I thought the look at theater during the war was especially interesting, especially the thread about the type of hyper-realistic plays with a heavy message that help to tie the story together. The basic story involves Rosie (who also works as a secretary) discovering the body of her boss - James McCain - and when she discovers through various methods that the reason for his death is tied to the script of a play that several people are desperate to find, the chase is on. The chasers include mobsters, playwrights, rich folks, other actresses and government officials, and the chasees are mainly Rosie and her roommate, the girlishly pretty Jayne Hamilton, dubbed by a critic "America's Squeakheart" because of her high, squeaky voice. There's a noir-ish feel to the story in that it seems no one can be trusted, but Rosie feels like a modern heroine to me. However, where better to put a strong, career minded female character than in the midst of WWII? Even her longing for Jack, her sweetheart overseas, can't change the fact that she needs to eat and keep a roof over her head.

The snappy and clever denouement is worthy of the set up - it's also very original. Miller Haines is able to find a very nice balance between the historical, and her own look back from the present, making this a very entertaining book. Rosie is a fresh, funny and brave character, and I was delighted to make her acquaintance.


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