Book Review: In This Grave Hour
by Jacqueline Winspear
The latest of Jacqueline Winspear’s novels featuring the intrepid, unflappable psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs (following last year’s very effective Journey to Munich), In This Grave Hour, opens on a hard note of history. The date is September 3rd, 1939, and Maisie is gathered with two old friends and their three young boys around the wireless set, listening intently to the broadcast by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that would herald the fundamental transformation of all their lives:
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
Maisie’s friends are old enough to remember the previous time England went to war with Germany, and her friends are also old enough to be terrified at the thought of their oldest son shipping to some nameless, sunless killing field in France or Belgium. She her has left no such hostages to fortune, but this being a Maise Dobbs novel, Winspear is hardly going to leave our heroine on the sidelines.
Instead, when she returns to her own apartment she finds Francesa Thomas, her old colleague in the British Secret Service, waiting for her with a complicated story of Frederick Addens, a railway engineer who was recently found dead under mysterious circumstances near St. Pancras Station, apparently having been formally executed by a professional. Initial inquiries conducted by Francesca Thomas revealed that the dead man had been a refugee from war-torn Belgium during the last war, when “over a quarter of a million people had entered the country, fleeing the approaching German army, the terror of bombing and occupation.” Francesca herself had been one such refugee, and she’s come to Maisie’s apartment in order to ask her to investigate the man’s murder, even though she knows better than anybody that Maisie isn’t in that line of work any longer.
She takes the case regardless, and soon enough there’s a second dead body. The case broadens to take in the day-to-day reality of living in an England in the early days of the war, and it deepens when in short order there’s a second dead body.
One of the great dangers for historical fiction of any kind, most certainly including historical whodunits, is that in a straight-up contest between fiction at its most gripping and real history at its most gripping, real history wins rather handily. If a writer stations her novel in the Regency era of London’s foppish, trivia-obsessed Ton, the problem vanishes. This might be a natural choice for Winspear too, setting neat little adventure after adventure around Maisie’s home in Kent against the backdrop of England between the wars. Setting a murder mystery in the heart of a London right at the moment embarked upon a new war with the Nazis runs the same risk as, say, setting a murder mystery on the Titanic. Who’s going to care what Mrs. Mcgillicuddy saw when bombs start falling on Piccadilly?
Winspear is a practiced hand at navigating these difficulties, and In This Grave Hour bustles forward with a smooth readability that’s only enhanced by the author’s wily allusions to a very different and far more contemporary European refugee crisis. As usual, Maisie Dobbs is a cool, level-headed, inviting focal character, and although part of the book’s plot turns on a key element that’s revealed in the last few pages to be about as substantial as a cheap tea time biscuit, this latest installment in the series very successfully continues the rewardingly complicated pitch the previous two books in the series. The Second World War has now engulfed our heroine, but there are still murders out there and still crimes to solve.