Winspear, Jacqueline - 'Among the Mad'
This story opens with Maisie and her assistant Billie Beale leaving her Fitzroy Square, West London office on a chilly Christmas Eve, 1931. The street was busy with people hurrying to complete their messages on this last day of the working week before the Christmas holiday, when suddenly there was a loud explosion. The explosion, of what turns out to be a grenade, kills and the resulting turmoil is investigated by the police.
Scotland Yard calls Maisie into their confidence, as some letters have been sent to high ranking people and also one is addressed to Maisie, threatening death and mayhem unless some demands are met. Scotland Yard, MI5 and Maisie have to spring into activity to trace and locate the bomber before he strikes again.
Whilst she is thinking about all of this she is concerned also about the wife of Billie Beale her assistant, as the poor woman lost a child and is suffering a breakdown in her mental health. She is admitted to a mental asylum. Mental hospitals of the day were really grim places - built in Victorian times and where all the patients were kept under lock and key, as if they all were really dangerous. Maisie tries to help her assistant come to terms with his wife in this sort of establishment.
But Maisie, who had nursing experience in the Great War is also investigating as she feels that the man who has made threats to Scotland Yard and the Prime Minister and others is an ex-inmate of one of these hospitals. There were a lot of mentally stressed and traumatised people wandering around at that time, in and out of mental hospitals, and the National Health Service had not yet been set up so they were often living in very dire circumstances, just begging for coins to buy food from their fellow countrymen who were equally suffering in one of the worse economic depressions of modern time.
The author has thoroughly researched her story in the archives of the British Museum and the War Museum and you really get a good sense of daily life in the 1930s; I remember my parents telling me stories of life at that time and those experiences gel very much with what this author is saying. This is a really high quality story with very good characterisation of Maisie, Billie and the other lesser characters which are very insightful and leap off the page.
This is the first of the "Maisie Dobbs" series that I have had the pleasure of reading. The author has five earlier titles in the series but there is no need to read the other stories to enjoy this one as it is completely self contained. The subject matter of the problems caused by the aftermath of the Great War has been covered extensively by Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and others. I have no hesitation in placing Jacqueline Winspear in the same august company and I should think this book will be one of my top five best reads of 2009.
Terry Halligan, England