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Book Review: Elegy for Eddie

Elegy For Eddie: A Maisie Dobbs Novel

Jacqueline Winspear

Harper, 2012

Fans of well-crafted murder mysteries (not as numerous a group as you might think) have a treat waiting for them in bookstores now: the ninth Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear, Elegy for Eddie. The book sports a gently evocative cover illustration by Andrew Davidson, and like all his covers in this series, it reflects the tone of what waits inside: enigmas, yes, but perhaps enigmas tending on the seat of power.

The year is 1933, and private investigator Maisie Dobbs is approached by a courteous group of distressed costermongers seeking advice about a dead comrade of theirs (one of the many smile-inducing things about this series is that every instalment occasions the use of phrases like “courteous group of distressed costermongers”). The dead man, Eddie Pettit, was something of a simple saint, a humble, quiet man who had a near-magical way with the horses he and his fellow salesmen use to walk their wares around London. He’d been crushed to death when a giant roll of paper stock broke free at a warehouse where he’d been making a stop, and although the police quickly ruled it an accident, his fellow costermongers believe foul play was involved. Lately Eddie had been acting strange, and the place where the fatal accident occurred employed a man with a shady past who’d never missed an opportunity to mock and torment Eddie. The men come to Maisie Dobbs because she grew up in Lambeth and knew Eddie from her girlhood, and they, too, have the ultimate leverage: “Your dad comes up here from the country every now and again and he tells us,” they confide, “you know, he tells us how proud he is of you, and that you’ve brought murderers to justice.”

Maisie puts on her sensible hat, picks up her sensible handbag, and starts off right away to interview people and get some facts (in a typically wonderful little grace note, Winspear writes, “She had left the office because she wanted the men to know she had taken up the case with no delay, but in truth she wanted time to think. She wanted to remember Eddie, and to cradle his memory in her heart”). Over the course of nine novels, our author has perfected the ability to weave social observations into her whodunits, like the knowing semi-pity Eddie Pettit’s former school teacher feels for him and his world:

“There was a special light about Eddie Pettit – an unworldliness you didn’t see much in those parts. The other teachers said it was because he was nothing more than the local idiot, that he didn’t have it in him to know anything. But to me the guilelessness of the boy – his innocence – was the very thing that held promise; a lot of the knowledge the other children had was not the sort you like to see in a child – poverty, a good whipping every night at home, going out to work before they came to school or after school. No wonder so many got into trouble.”

Early in the course of the investigation, one of Maisie’s loyal assistants is badly beaten up, and his stay in hospital brings our precise and sometimes flinty heroine under the observation of psychiatric doctor Elsbeth Masters, who perhaps hits too close to home when she observes, “I would wager that you keep a very tight rein on what happens in your personal solar system” (Maisie’s somewhat predictable sassy friend Priscilla also dishes out psychological observations, although none so cleverly phrased).

Some of the orderliness of that solar system is disrupted as Maisie digs deeper into Pettit’s death, which she quickly decides was no accident. She naturally comes in contact with the paper-warehouse’s owner, the ruthless newspaper baron John Otterburn, who some characters detest and others call “a man of vision.” Readers familiar with the period will grin at this spot-on depiction of Lord Beaverbrook, and from it they’ll perhaps be able to anticipate some of the book’s closing points a bit more easily than the less history-savvy among Winspear’s audience. As one character puts it, the trouble with being a man of vision is that “others do not believe what he can see. He’s the sort of man we need in this country, and he may prove to be the salvation of us all.”

One way or the other, Otterburn is certainly prescient about the main historical event looming over these pages – the new German chancellor:

“Three months. He’s been in power three months. Think what that man will do given years of dictatorship. And what are our esteemed politicians doing, both here and across the Atlantic? Nothing. They’re sitting on their hands, whistling to themselves, and hoping it will all go away – with the exception of one man who can see that it will not go away, who knows it’s going to get worse before it ever gets better, whether it takes five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years.”

One other character in the book shares Otterburn’s premonitions about Hitler and the gathering storm-clouds: “That portly little fellow with the cigar.” As noted, Davidson’s cover is apt: Maisie is soon swimming in deeper waters than we’ve ever seen before.

All of it, down to the last minor character and city intersection, is handled with perfect clarity and just the slightest hint of period sentimentality (the latter element is stronger in this book than in any of the previous ones, as indeed how could it not be? The thought of Maisie Dobbs huddling in Underground air raid shelters and living on rations is a startlingly sobering thought). And at the center of everything is our resplendent main character, one of those truly comforting fictional creations who feels like they’ve been with us forever. There’s something essentially right about a character who, when asked how she figured out one particularly murky plot-point, simply says “I I just thought about it a lot.”

The between-wars idyll readers have come to associate with Maisie Dobbs is obviously coming to a close; the mere mention of Hitler’s name eliminates the possibility of much more innocence in this series. If Winspear is kind, she’ll retire Maisie before the bombs start falling and take us through the war with some other character – perhaps one we care about less, although creating such a character might be the one thing this author can’t do.