A reader of this blog suggested that I might enjoy Maisie Dobbs, a detective novel by Jacqueline Winspear, set in the 1920s.
I was a bit suspicious of the book at first – modern fiction based on the Great War and its aftermath often manages to be very untrue to the spirit of the time in which it was set, and impose a modern political agenda. This book is rather good, though. It starts with Maisie setting herself up in the detective business in 1929, and taking on a case that leads her back to consider what happened to men damaged by the war. The note here seems about right – not the indulged indignation of a Pat Barker, but sadness at lives damaged and wasted.
Then there’s a flashback, telling Maisie’s own history. Here it all gets less than entirely credible (she’s a housemaid who turns out to be an intellectual prodigy, so her employer sends her to Girton. Hmmm…). The War happens, and she becomes a nurse in a casualty clearing station . This section, I thought, was very well done. The horrors are by no means understated, but we also get a strong sense of the professionalism with which the nurses combated these – there’s no wallowing in horror.
The sisters of the London Hospital had taught their nurses well. Never, never ever change your expression at the sight of a wound – they’ll be looking into your eyes to see their future. Look straight back at them.
As Maisie worked quickly, taking up disinfectant and swabs, a surgeon accompanied by nurses and medical orderlies moved from one soldier to the next, cutting away skin, bone and muscle, pulling shrapnel from the bodies of boys who had taken on the toil of men.
The last section of the book goes back to the original mystery, and once again deals with the trauma of war, with men who hide away because of their wounds, and others who exploit this. It’s genre fiction, so one is asked to excuse a few implausibilities, but beyond that there is a sense – very accurate, I think – of how the 1920s were haunted by the memory of the War, for good and evil. There are people in this book who are proud of their War service, and others ruined by it. There are women whose lives were widened by the social changes, and men whose prospects are totally narrowed.
So – it’s light reading, but most enjoyable for this cold Bank Holiday weekend. I whizzed through the book in a day, and then passed it over to my wife, who did the same.