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January 09, 2007

Somewhat hysterical history: Pardonable Lies - Jacqueline Winspear

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Pardonable Lies
by Jacqueline Winspear
London: John Murray, 2006
Paperback, £6.99

There is a curious cultural division between British and American detective story writers. Many themes are similar and neither the police procedurals nor the PI tales are that different, except when the British writers try to be really tough in the American mould. They rarely succeed. But Americans, as I have mentioned before, love "cosy" mysteries whereas more and more British writers produce historical ones. Even writers like Marjorie Eccles, who started out by writing brisk police mysteries, have gone on to historical ones. Ann Granger seems to have abandoned her Mitchell and Markby village tales and her somewhat tougher Fran Varaday urban ones, to write Victorian grizzlies.

Some writers produce series in different epochs and different places; others specialize in, as it were, ancient Egypt or Rome (this one is a great favourite), mediaeval England, the Tudors and Stuarts and so on, right up to the late Victorians and the inter-war period of the twentieth century.

Not that there are no Americans in the genre: Laurie R. King has developed two series: one about a modern day San Francisco cop, Kate Martinelli, the other about Mary Russell, Sherlock Holmes's pupil, assistant and … sigh … wife. And Jacqueline Winspear, who tells us that she was born and raised in Kent, has, in fact, lived in the United States for some years and can be counted as an American writer, who writes about England soon after the Great War.

One can understand why the inter-war period should be so popular. It was, after all, the "golden age" of detective story writing, though few of those books have remained at all readable. There is no reason why a modern analysis of the period and its inhabitants should not compete and win with all those locked room mysteries or murders in various manors. Modern writers can surely take on even the Great War and its effects on the country.

There are advantages to setting a detective story in a historical period. It dispenses with the need to understand all the details of modern police procedure, especially the various scientific tests. One can, of course, refer to them rather airily but not having to deal with them is even better. The disadvantage of setting the plot in some historical period is that one really needs to know it and understand it. Simply throwing in the odd fact and reference as Jacqueline Winspear does is not enough. At no time does the reader get the feel that Pardonable Lies takes place in 1930. Apart from the endless references to the Great War, it could be at any time.

There are infuriating mistakes. Titles mattered in 1930 and a woman like Maisie Dobbs, Ms Winspear's heroine, who had started her working life as a parlour maid, would know that Lord and Lady Compton are unlikely to be also Lord Julian and Lady Rowan. The wife of Sir Cecil Lawton, as both she and the improbably man servant would know, is Lady Lawton, not Mrs Lawton or Lady Agnes. Other little mistakes irritate the reader and raise the question of why 1930 (with previous novels in the late twenties). The answer to that becomes obvious: the Great War, in which Ms Winspear's grandfather fought and was gassed, seems to be an obsession both for the writer and the heroine.

Maisie Dobbs is a psychologist and investigator though it is not clear which school of psychology either she or her teacher, Maurice Blanche belong to - also of some importance in the 1920s. There is a good deal of rather low-level body language discussion, piercing looks are given, arms are quickly touched and somewhat superficial statements are deliberated on. Maisie also does yoga and meditates though her best weapon is womanly understanding. Baroness Orczy's Lady Molly of Scotland Yard was more intellectual than that. The latter became a detective in order to save her fiancé who had been falsely imprisoned. This has always been a matter of some contempt to modern detective story writers and critics. It is hard to see that Maisie Dobbs, whose aim in detective work seems to be to sort out her own problems, is an improvement. She merely shows a modern rebalancing of interests.

Maisie has a lot of problems: despite her mother dying some twenty years earlier she has not got over it; her experiences during the war had been so bad that she gets the heebejeebs if anyone mentions France; she cannot quite work out whether she is a psychologist (of whichever school of thought) or an investigator. By the end of the book she has managed to have a break-down in France but seems to be on her way to dealing with that problem. On the others we have to wait for future novels to find out.

Still, if one does not mind all of that and can swallow a hefty dose of several coincidences, this is a very readable novel with several carefully worked out plot lines that merge quite effectively. Too much of it is connected to the Great War and its horrors, which makes for a good tale but is not, perhaps, totally realistic. By 1930 many were looking anxiously to a future war rather than back to the one that had finished twelve years previously. Several of the characters are likeable, especially Maisie's assistant and one can even tolerate her after a while. Let me put it this way: I shall try to read the next novel and make a decision then as to whether Ms Winspear and her works become a fixture in my life.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of www.eureferendum.com.


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