Thursday, March 6, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear, a vivid recreator of Britain between the wars
by Steven Williams

color photograph of Jacqueline Winspear circa Fall 2010Jacqueline Winspear is a critically recognized and popular mystery writer. She was born in the county of Kent in England. Her working career includes work as a nanny as well as the publishing industry in England working in sales and marketing, eventually working as a sales and marketing communications consultant for ten years. Winspear emigrated to the United States in 1990 and now lives in Northern California with her husband, dividing her time between Ojai in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. Although she has made her home in the US, she remains a regular visitor to the UK and Europe. She is best known for her series of mysteries set in the late 1920s and 1930s England starring the recurring character Maisie Dobbs and the effectiveness of the author's research, enriching her stories within a universe of period detail.

black and white photograph of London shoppers circa 1930The settings for Winspear's mystery novels are also noted for their very accurate and effective recreation of the social atmosphere of England between the wars, especially as related to the loss, through wounding or death, of a generation of young men during the Great War (most familiar as World War I to Americans). Her own grandfather had been wounded both physically and psychologically in this war and her family's experiences and the War's general aftereffects interested Winspear since her childhood. One of the side enduring demographic effects of the war is that the shortage of men lead to significant social upheaval in the UK, including the fact that many women took on work and as a result benefited from the independence this provided. The character of Maisie Dobbs is constructed around the historical and social reality in the simmering aftermath of the war.

'Maisie Dobbs' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverMaisie Dobbs (2003)
'Maisie Dobbs' was Winspear's first published novel. It introduced Maisie, providing her with a back-story that includes work as a maid, her mentoring by a titled suffragette and subsequent university experience, and her training as a nurse and service in the Great War where she was wounded. In this story, Maisie has begun her own business as a private investigation service, 'M. Dobbs, Trade and Personal Investigations'. Her very first job involves the investigation of suspected infidelity. It turns out that that there is something else complete different. The chain of connections lead to mysterious tombstones with only first names at the graves for former residents of a highly regarded convalescent refuge, a farm called The Retreat. It is a reclusive community made up of badly wounded ex-soldiers. When the son of her mentor, Lady Rowan, begins making plans to join move into this community, Maisie investigates the place in more depth and discovers a disturbing mystery that ends up being related to Maisie's own repressed war experiences. Maisie Dobbswas one of Publishers’ Weekly’s Best Mysteries of 2003, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, an Agatha Award winner for Best First Novel, an Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel 2003, and a winner of both the Alex and the Macavity Awards.

'Birds of a Feather' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverBirds of a Feather (2004)
In Birds of a Feather, Maisie Dobbs is hired for a missing person investigation. At the time the story begins, 1929, Maisie's business venture has expanded with her investigation agency now inhabiting a professional office in Fitzroy Square in London and requiring the employment of an assistant, a happy-go-lucky cockney lad. Maisie has proven herself as both a psychologist and investigator, including recognition by a Detective Inspector of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad. She is asked to find a wealthy man's daughter who has run away from home. This is not the first time the young woman has left home to escape her father's overbearing domination of her life. Initially, the case seems simple, but Maisie finds herself caught up in the deaths of three of the missing heiress's old friends, all three violently killed, each one poisoned and then bayoneted. A white feather is also left at each murder scene. Maisie begins checking into a possible connection between the disappearance and the murders and ends up discovering a link to the terrible legacy of The Great War. Birds of a Feather is a winner of the Agatha Award for Best Novel. Birds of a Feather was also nominated for a Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery.

'Pardonable Lies' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverPardonable Lies (2005)
This is the third Maisie Dobbs mystery by Winspear, and it continues to reflect the author's skill as a writer, both in character development and period atmosphere. The story begins with a dying wife's request. Her husband comes to Maisie Dobbs agency ask her to help him honor his wife's request to search once more for the body of her only son, a pilot who was shot down behind the German lines in The Great War. In doing so, she is lead to reconnect with an old university friend who lost three brothers in the war and who also asks Maisie to try to discover the details behind the death of one of them. It develops that the brother she is trying to learn about had a connection to the dead pilot whose probable death she is also investigating. As a foil to Maisie's search into events of the past, she also has taken on the investigation of a thirteen-year-old girl, accused of premeditated murder. As in the previous two Winspear novels, the author has her main character delve more completely into her enduring pain from her experiences as a nurse near the front. Pardonable Lies is a winner of the Macavity Sue Feder Award for Best Historical Mystery. Pardonable Lies was also nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Novel as well as the Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery.

'Messenger of Truth' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverMessenger of Truth (2006)
Winspear's fourth mystery presents Maisie with the situation where a controversial artist has died in an 'accidental' fall the night before an exhibition of his paintings opens at an important Mayfair gallery. The dead artist's twin sister is convinced that the police ruling of accidental death is not correct. She was a wartime journalist and has a reputation no less controversial than her dead brother's because of her pioneering work as a woman journalist. Maisie is convinced to take on the investigation as a favor to a fellow graduate from the same Cambridge college. The dead man was a veteran of The Great War who was commissioned to design war propaganda after being wounded. The investigation leads Maisie into the darker aspects of London's art community, the unusual background and troubling behavior of the dead man's family, England's enduring class divisions, and the dangerous emerging English fascist movement. Messenger of Truth has been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Novel. Messenger of Truth was also nominated for a Sue Feder/Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery.

'An Incomplete Revenge' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverAn Incomplete Revenge (2008)
The newest Maisie Dobbs mystery by Winspear has, like every one of her previous books, received both critical acclaim and enthusiastic reader word-of-mouth. In this most recent book, Winspear has Maisie investigating an unusual series of crimes in a small rural community. The situation begins with a simple request form an old friend to investigate the background history of some land that is being considered for purchase. The investigation takes place in a village in Kent during hop picking season. A mysteriously regular series of fires and petty crimes lead Maisie to discover deep-seated local prejudice against the seasonal influx of Gypsies who have traditionally picked hops. There also seems to be some sort of connection within events to a wartime Zeppelin raid in the area.

'Among the Mad' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverAmong the Mad (2009)
Winspear's sixth mystery novel starring the psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs begins on Christmas Eve 1931 with Maisie witnessing the suicide of a man on the streets of London where he destroys himself with a bomb. She had been on her way to meet a client and is herself slightly wounded in the explosion. It soon transpires that this suicide is linked to a number of threatening letters to the Prime Minister that begin arriving the following day. Oddly enough, the first of these notes also mentions Maisie by name. After she has been questioned and cleared by a Detective Chief Superintendent, she finds herself involved with a Scotland Yard Special Branch investigative team. This team has been quickly established to prevent the cataclysmic attack on the Prime Minister and London's citizens promised by the author of the threatening letters. The series of letters soon reveal that their author has both the means and the will to inflict such an attack. Maisie works with the investigative team under the madman's fast-paced deadline. Meanwhile, Maisie must continue to deal with the residual emotional aftereffects of the death of her fiancé as well her assistant's efforts to cope with his wife's depression after the death of their little girl.

'The Mapping of Love and Death' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverThe Mapping of Love and Death (2010)
This novel, the seventh Maisie Dobbs mystery, is set in 1932. The discovery of a collapsed dugout from the Great War containing the bodies of a cartography team and their equipment set events in motion. Maisie's investigation has been prompted when the young man's parents come to London with love letters found among their son's belongings. They contain information about an unknown English nurse who was their son's lover. On the same day that the American couple hires Maisie to look for their son's lover, they are attacked and beaten. Maisie's investigation leads to an autopsy of body of the young man in question which in turn reveals that he was apparently murdered before the dugout originally collapsed. Maisie sets out determined to find the unnamed woman and the trail leads to the School of Military Engineering in Chatham which Michael attended. Professionally, during the investigation Maisie learns about the critical role cartography played in the war. Personally, she must deal with the realization that she falling in love as well as the painful reality of the impending death of her mentor, Maurice Blanche.

'A Lesson in Secrets' by Jacqueline Winspear US hardcover edition front coverA Lesson in Secrets (March, 2011)
This eighth Maisie Dobbs mystery, also set in 1932, finds Maisie financially independent thanks to a bequest from her late mentor, Maurice Blanche. At the same time she finds herself recruited by the British Secret Service. She is asked to become a junior lecturer in philosophy at a small Cambridge college dedicated to maintaining peace in Europe as a cover for a search for dissidents and Communists. This college has been recently established by a noted pacifist scholar who produced a children's book during the Great War which the government went to a great deal of effort to suppress. Not long after her arrival at the college, famous headmaster and founder of the college is found dead in his office. The murder prompts Maisie to request an investigation by Scotland Yard. Her investigations for the Secret Service begins to pay off when some the suspicious comings and goings of the faculty and students she is watching reveal themselves to be linked to the murder. In unraveling the web of intrigue she discovers hidden and shameful truths about Britain during the Great War. These discoveries also reveal what apparently are the first stirrings of the nascent English Fascist movement, portents of events that will eventually lead to another World War in Europe.

black and white photograph of Margaret Alexander EdwardsAlex Awards
The 'Alex Award' is given each year to the top ten adult books for young adults, (i.e., books that were written for adults but that become popular with young adults). The Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust funds this award. The first Alex Awards were given out in 1997. The Alex Awards are cosponsored by Booklist and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) and are named in honor of Margaret Edwards (1902-1988), known by 'Alex' by her friends. Alex Award sealMargaret Edwards was a pioneer in young adult library services, and her accomplishments at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore lead to an enduring influence on and inspiration to young adult librarians for over thirty years. Edwards was committed to ensuring teenagers had access to appropriate adult-level fiction and her influence was extensive because of her incorporation of adult fiction in the readers' advisory training programs she instituted.

black and white photograph of Bruce Alexander aka Bruce CookBruce Alexander Awards
The Bruce Alexander Award is given for the best historical crime novel (set anywhere in the time period up to 1956, fifty years before the sixteenth Left Coast Crime convention) published in the English language. The name of this award was chosen to honor the memory of the historical crime author Bruce Alexander, born Bruce Cook (1932-2003). He wrote a series of critically well-received and very popular historical mysteries, the Sir John Fielding series, based on a real person. Fielding was a blind magistrate in London and is responsible for founding London's fledgling police force, the Bow Street Runners. The Alexander Award is given out by 'Left Coast Crime', at their annual mystery convention which is sponsored by mystery fans for mystery fans and focuses on the writing of mystery fiction. It is held during the first quarter of each calendar year.

color photograph of a Maccavity AwardMacavity Awards
The Macavity Award is named for the "mystery cat" of T.S. Eliot (Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats). Each year the members of Mystery Readers International nominate and vote for their favorite mysteries in four categories. The year listed for an award is for books published in the previous calendar year. Mystery Readers International (MRI) is the largest mystery fan/reader organization in the world, and is open to all readers, fans, critics, editors, publishers, and writers. The Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award is one of the sub-categories of the Macavity Awards and it was created in 2006 to honor the memory and work of Sue Feder (died 2005) also known as Sue Feder Miller. Sue Feder was a noted dedicated and enthusiastic reviewer, scholar, and fans of mysteries. Feder founded the Historical Mystery Appreciation Society (HMAS) along with its quarterly journal, 'Murder Past Tense', which was dedicated to and focused on the works Ellis Peters. Feder also wrote reviews for 'Deadly Pleasures' and 'Mystery Readers Journal' and was a member of DAPA-EM for many years. DAPA-EM is a fan publication and its members (about thirty-five writers, readers, fanzine editors, and aficionados of the mystery genre) each write a bimonthly 'zine of reviews, checklists, profiles and articles about mystery fiction. The resulting thirty to forty 'zines are then collated and redistributed to members. She was instrumental in establishing the HMAS Herodotus Award for historical mysteries. The Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award continues this tradition in her memory. Nominees are made and voted on by members of MRI and presented at each year's BoucherCon World Mystery Convention (also known as The Anthony Boucher Memorial Mystery Convention), their annual convention. This convention is named in honor of Anthony Boucher, the best-known pseudonym of William Anthony Parker White, an American fiction reviewer, science fiction editor, and author of mystery novels and short stories. His influence was most widely felt through his position as an editor from which he helped many authors get their start in writing. He is also noted for his efforts to make literary quality an important aspect of science fiction.

color photograph of a Malice Domestic Agatha Award teapotAgatha Award
The Agatha Awards are fan-generated literary awards for mystery and crime authors that are given out by Malice Domestic. Malice Domestic is an annual mystery fan convention held in metropolitan Washington, DC that celebrates the traditional mystery as typified by Agatha Christie's mystery novels. Malice Domestic convention registrants and members of 'Friends of Malice' receive nomination ballots in January. For works to be nominated, they must have been submitted to Malice Domestic for consideration for nomination by their publishers within the previous year. The Agatha Awards are given out at the subsequent annual Malice Domestic convention and they are given out for five categories: Best Novel, Best First Mystery, Best Short Story, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Children's or Young Adult Mystery. Agatha Award nominees must have a number of characteristics. Any work considered for an Agatha Award must have been published first in the United States plus it needs to have been written by a living author. Publication of considered works may be as hardcover editions, paperback original editions, or e-published editions. For any mystery to be considered for any of the Agatha Award categories, it must contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or unjustified violence. Agatha Award nominees almost always feature an amateur detective as well as always taking place within a confined setting (i.e., a 'closed room', country house, or small town). Agatha Award nominated works also always contain main characters that know one another. 'Hard Boiled' mysteries are explicitly not considered for Agatha Awards.

black and white photograph of an Edgar Award trophyEdgar Award
The Edgars, (i.e., a winner of an Edgar award), have been given out each Spring beginning in 1954 by the Mystery Writers of America. The Mystery Writers of America is an organization for mystery writers based in New York and originally founded in 1945. The Edgar Awards are named after the American author, poet, editor and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Poe is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre and is widely considered to be one of if not the actual originator of the archtypal 'detective fiction' story form. Poe's detective fiction is considred the basis from which all subsequent mystery fiction forms have developed. 1848 black and white photograph of Edgar Allan PoeThe Edgar Awards are given to honor the best mystery fiction, non-fiction, television, film, and theatre published or produced in the previous year and are considered one of the most prestigious awards in the mystery genre. Generally, for a work to be considered for an Edgar, it must have been published or shown in the United States for the first time in the previous year. Currently there are eleven Edgar Award categories with the greatest attention being paid to the Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, and the Best Paperback Original categories.

The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael J. Deas
The Edgars Banquet official website
Mystery Writers of America official website

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Jacqueline Winspear, a vivid recreator of Britain between the wars by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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