Fourteenth in the popular Maisie
Dobbs series is set in
1940s Britain. As the Second World War changes lives,
people are preparing for an invasion that isn't under way.
Tension, rules, fear, and even boredom are found, if you
believe this account.
TO DIE BUT ONCE features Maisie Dobbs, who trained to be a
nurse during the Great War, studied legal medicine, and has
grown along with the history background. Nowadays she has
an office in London on the Tottenham Court Road, from where
she operates as Psychologist and Investigator. A friend
comes and tells her that his son Billy Coombes has gone
missing. The lad was an apprentice painter, who was
traveling around RAF bases painting fire-retardant paint
onto the walls. This chemical-based paint gave him
headaches. But this was vital work, and he's not the sort
to desert. Maisie agrees to investigate, as the father
can't be spared from his work.
Running in parallel is the reported account of Hitler's
army forcing its way through the Low Countries to France,
where the British Expeditionary Force sit with antiquated
equipment. The reader knows this will lead to the mass
evacuation from Dunkirk, but we see the build-up through
the eyes of those who have men over in France, worrying for
their lives. Maisie heads down to Hampshire, a large
agricultural county, and makes her inquiries. But the crew
here believe Billy went home to London. When Billy is
found, it's not good news.
I love all the period detail, from children with measles,
to silk being used to insulate electrical cables. Class
boundaries were often pushed aside and women took on work
they had never tried. At the end, the author's note explains
that her father was a similar house painter called to apply
the special paint; her aunt inspired a character from the
WAAF, having driven ambulances. Two of her uncles stood on
the beach at Dunkirk awaiting boats. The personal and the
fictional mix well in the evocative tale, a mysterious
death proving a good device to draw us into the times and
lives the author wishes to reflect.
If you have not read any earlier books in Jacqueline
Winspear's series, you will be able to pick up as much
background as needed to follow Maisie, especially if you
enjoy British historical fiction. I warn you though, after
TO DIE BUT ONCE you will instantly want to go and find the
earlier books about tenacious Maisie Dobbs.
Maisie Dobbs—one of the most complex and admirable
characters in contemporary fiction (Richmond Times
Dispatch)—faces danger and intrigue on the home front
during World War II.
During the months following Britain’s declaration of war
on Germany, Maisie Dobbs investigates the disappearance
of a young apprentice working on a hush-hush government
contract. As news of the plight of thousands of soldiers
stranded on the beaches of France is gradually revealed
to the general public, and the threat of invasion rises,
another young man beloved by Maisie makes a terrible
decision that will change his life forever.
Maisie’s investigation leads her from the countryside of
rural Hampshire to the web of wartime opportunism
exploited by one of the London underworld’s most powerful
men, in a case that serves as a reminder of the
inextricable link between money and war. Yet when a final
confrontation approaches, she must acknowledge the
potential cost to her future—and the risk of destroying a
dream she wants very much to become reality.