Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs, #6)Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's Christmas Eve 1931 in Maisie Dobbs' world, more than ten years past the end of the Great War that was to "end all wars."

The war goes on though for so many of those who participated in it. Millions of men and women who were grievously wounded either physically or psychologically - or both - continue to struggle with their wounds and with trying to make a place for themselves in the world. Maisie Dobbs' work as a psychologist and investigator often seems to bring her into contact with these desperate people and that is the case once again in Among the Mad.

It begins with Maisie walking down a London street with her assistant Billy Beale, on their way to meet with a client. Suddenly, Maisie gets one of her premonitions. She orders her assistant to go back as she walks forward toward a disabled man sitting on the street. He has one missing leg and the other injured and Maisie feels the distress coming from him. As she approaches him with her arm outstretched, he detonates a hand grenade, blowing himself up and injuring some of those on the street. Luckily, Maisie is not seriously injured but she is deeply affected by the event.

The next day the prime minister's office receives a letter threatening a massive loss of life if the writer's demands are not met. Curiously, the letter mentions Maisie's name which leads her to be investigated by Scotland Yard's elite Special Branch. She is cleared and then seconded to the Special Branch as a part of the team investigating the letter and trying to prevent a terrorist attack on the city.

While Maisie is involved in this case, she is also trying to help Billy, whose wife has descended fully into the abyss of melancholia following the death of their small daughter several months before. She is finally deemed to be a danger to herself or her two living children and she is committed to an institution for the care of the mentally disturbed, but this particular institution turns out to be a chamber of horrors and Maisie and Billy work to get her moved to a more humane facility.

Meanwhile, an incident at a veterinary facility results in the death of several dogs from some sort of chemical attack and this is followed by the killing of a number of birds by, apparently, the same means. Further letters received at Special Branch warn that the next victims will be human. And, indeed, a young government official is then killed. The letter writer warns that the next event will be a mass killing.

Maisie and the rest of the team race to find the writer of the letters and to stop him before he can accomplish that killing. They each follow different leads and Maisie investigates those who have been involved in research into chemical warfare. Her inquiry leads her into the world of shell-shocked men, a world of the darkness that she first encountered as a nurse during the war.

Jacqueline Winspear once again explores the theme that she has adopted as her main topic in this series, which is that of the treatment of those who fight a country's wars when they return home, often battered and damaged, from those wars. It was an issue after the First World War and every war since and it is still an issue today. We can read it in the headlines of any of today's newspapers. Winspear, through her character Maisie Dobbs, is an advocate for the humane treatment of such victims of man's inhumanity. These novels seem very timely in that regard and they give us pause to think about how far our treatment of shell-shock - now called PTSD - has come in a hundred years. Or not.  


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