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"Nick's art was his exorcism...Every time a picture was born of his memory, it was as if something dark was laid to rest."
on 12 September 2006
Set in post-World War I England, the Maisie Dobbs mysteries keep getting better and better--more fully developed, more complex, and more illustrative of life in that between-wars era. In this fourth novel, Maisie, a former army nurse, now in her late twenties, is an "inquiry agent," or private detective, who has been contacted by wealthy Georgina Bassington-Hope following the death of her brother Nick. Nick, a highly regarded artist, died in a fall from the scaffolding he was using to mount a new exhibition, and Georgina, defying her family and the police report, believes he was pushed.
Using straight-forward, workmanlike prose, author Jacqueline Winspear develops the story and a cast of characters which offers a broad cross section of the society between world wars--from the wealthy Bassington-Hopes, who can afford to be frivolous in their arty lives, to the family of Billy Beale, a poor man who supports his large family as Maisie's assistant. The exotic world of artists, gallery owners, and buyers, comes alive, as does the world of fishermen on the Kentish coast, where Nick Bassington-Hope has his studio, and the reader quickly develops an awareness of the stratification pervading society and the concern for one's "place" in it.
As Maisie begins her investigation of Nick's death, Winspear juggles several overlapping plot threads simultaneously. Nick's exhibition was to feature his "masterpiece," thought to be a triptych about his experiences in the war, a work of art so secret no one has ever seen it--and no one has found it since his death. The relationships of Nick Bassington-Hope with his family and friends; the problems of Billy Beale's family in an overcrowded and unhealthy tenement; Maisie's new suitor and romance; the centuries-long history of smuggling on the Kentish coast; and the search for Nick's missing masterpiece keep the action lively from beginning to end, with plenty of tugs at the heartstrings as sorrowful events, some associated with the war, unfold.
Maisie, as proper and chaste as the heroines of novels actually written in the 1930s, is imaginative and independent, always polite and "lady-like." Genuinely fond of Billy Beale's family, she nevertheless maintains a professional distance as his employer, not wanting to insult his pride. The novel feels "cozy," in its intimacy and family orientation, with care paid to characters' feelings and domestic conflicts. Though the novel has moments of excitement, the reader is left, at the end, with as much appreciation for its charm as for its mystery. Mary Whipple