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"For he was indubitably a man who has been to war as he vanishes into the noxious blend of smoke and fog."
on 19 February 2009
A much darker and leaner tale than her previous Maisie Dobbs outings, in Among the Mad, Jacqueline Winspear focuses on the collateral damage of the Great War, the terror and chaos of the battlefield and how it ultimately devastated a generation of young men. Maisie unexpectedly journeys into hostile territory and a dark landscape that involves a loss of Britain's innocence. Much of the drama plays out on the crowded streets of London as Maisie and her assistant Billy Beal find themselves caught up in a 1930's style suicide bombing when a man begging on the street corner suddenly activates a hand grenade inside his tattered and stained khaki coat.
Barely escaping with her life, Maisie had innocently walked up to him, his leg stretched out, as if he were lame. And as she had reached into her bag to offer money to someone who had so little, the grenade had suddenly exploded. There was a point at which Maisie new that the man would take his life. The man had been a soldier, the right leg amputated. As Detective Inspector Richard Stratton, who saw it all happen offers Maisie as measure of comfort, she remains haunted by the sense that someone had seen her reach out to the doomed man, had seen their eyes meet just before he pulled the pin that would ignite the grenade.
It is this attack that coincides with a much larger threat. In a wet London with an "unyielding quality of gray light that makes the word Merry Christmas seem hardly worth saying," a note, soiled by saliva, is received by the Home Security, telling of a terrible disaster involving a lethal nerve agent. The note also mentions Maisie's name and demands that the government act immediately to alleviate the suffering of all unemployed, starting with measures to assist those who have served their country in wartime. Certainly Maisie's talents render her a valuable member of the group centered in Scotland Yard. Together with Special Branch's Colm Darby and DCI Robert MacPharlane, Maisie prepares her template, piecing together a portrait of a man who is haunted by the ghosts of the Great War and has somehow been abandoned and has abandoned life.
From the outset it is obvious that two cases, linked by the person writing the letter, has used Maisie's name as currency to ad weight to his endeavor. Then a sickening report comes in of a gas attack on a number of dogs in Battersea. Coupled with the surprise revelation that MacFarlane has a group in custody and believes them to be behind the threats, union activists. Still the question remains: How could a man bring himself to kill innocent life, both animal and human? Winspear unfolds Maisie's latest case with a chilling urgency, from the paranoia of a killer who is determined to gas half of London to the furtive events at Mulberry Point and the strange experiments of the staff and their overexposure to nerve agents, the fate of many of the young soldiers unknown, and a cover up by the men of the Military Intelligence, Section five. Soon Maisie's investigations reveal the ugly details of the enigmatic Dr Anthony Lawrence, an expert in treatment of psychological trauma whose actions are surely dictated by his ambition and a professional curiosity.
Maisie is hardly a naïve protagonist but in this installment she is forced to confront her own reticence and her lack of emotional mastery when faced with the possibility of a more intimate connection. Meanwhile, Maisie tries to help Billy's wife Doreen and her growing melancholia, and also that of her best friend best friend Priscilla who is battles drink while trying desperately to remake her life. Even after thirteen years the war still ravages these characters. Shocking and painful, Winspear tries to inject hope into the narrative even as war neurosis and neurasthenia battle fatigue seem to have consumed a young soldier's heart, ultimately enveloping him in hysteria along with thousands of other lost boys. While the novel has the traditional attributes of a fast-paced and entertaining historical mystery - with the delightful character of Maisie always at its core - there's a deeper understanding at work here as the author digs deep into the mind of a man who has seen battle at close quarters and is so afflicted mentally and emotionally, embroiled in a deep melancholia and darkness. Mike Leonard February 09.