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Just when you've had your fill of crime-solving cats and serial killers, along comes a writer with a refreshingly original take on crime fiction. Since 2003 Jacqueline Winspear has been entertaining readers with the exploits of Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator based in London in the period between the wars. ELEGY FOR EDDIE is the ninth book in her award-winning series.
The daughter of a costermonger, Maisie began her adult life as a maid in a Belgravia mansion. But her intelligence and curiosity quickly came to the attention of her wealthy employer, who joined forces with a family friend to make it possible for Maisie to pursue studies at Cambridge University. After interrupting her studies briefly to serve in the Great War as a nurse, Maisie has now become wealthy enough to invest in property, and her resources have allowed her to follow her passion—to open a private enquiry agency, now grown to include two assistants. Maisie has also developed a romantic but complex relationship with Viscount James Compton, the wealthy heir to a family fortune encompassing investments in both Britain and Canada. With her financial independence, her red MG open touring car, and her self-assurance, Maisie is the very image of an emancipated modern woman of the 1930s.
When Maisie arrives to open her office one morning she finds several men waiting for her. They are costermongers, friends of her father, and they have a case for her. Eddie Pettit, a man known to them all, has been killed in a factory mishap: he died when a large roll of paper slipped off a belt and crushed him to death.
Eddie had always been a bit simple, and his life had centered on his special relationship with horses. During the Great War the army had recognised his talents and made him a groom, and he had served out the war looking after the army's stock on Hampstead Heath. In recent years Eddie had continued to tend horses in the various trades, cartage and delivery, that still relied on them. Lately, he had also run small errands for people at the paper mill.
The factory's management, along with the police, put his death down to a regrettable accident, but Eddie's friends are convinced it was murder. Complicating matters, the mill is but one link in a chain of investments owned by John Otterburn, who has business connections with Maisie's lover, James Compton.
Maisie pokes around the factory, asking how Eddie's death could have occurred, and is far from convinced that it was anything but an accident; but some things keep niggling at her. For one, Eddie's friends, and his mother, agree that something about Eddie had changed recently: he had become more quiet, more withdrawn inside himself. For another, he had taken to keeping a notebook, with drawings inside, but the notebook is nowhere to be found. When Maisie's assistant, Billy Beale, is savagely beaten after nosing around she resolves to get to the bottom of things.
Maisie's enquiries will strain her already-troubled relationship with James Compton, and push her inexorably toward a confrontation with the wealthy industrialist John Otterburn, a man seemingly obsessed by the prospect of yet another world war. He seems curiously knowledgeable about the rise of a political firebrand in Germany named Adolf Hitler, and his circle of friends include a shadowy political figure by the name of Winston Churchill.
In this age of forensic procedurals, Winspear reminds us just how much solid investigative work is down to simple shoe leather and common sense. But it is not in solving puzzles that Winspear shines; it is in her detailed depiction of the times, and the portrayal of characters who so perfectly reflect their social positions, ranging from Maisie's wealthy paramour, James Compton, to the humble costermongers of her own childhood. She also captures the complex tempo of the period between the wars, and more subtly, the nuanced position of women in British society at all levels. A refreshing and entertaining tale with an engaging protagonist, ELEGY FOR EDDIE is the latest in a series of novels that beg to be filmed.
§Since 2005 Jim Napier's reviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on such websites as SPINETINGLER, THE RAP SHEET, SHOTS MAGAZINE, CRIMETIME, and JANUARY MAGAZINE, as well as on his own award-winning site, DEADLY DIVERSIONS. He can be reached at email@example.com
Reviewed by Jim Napier, December 2012
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