Friday, September 01, 2006

Jacqueline Winspear's Messenger of Truth ~ Reviewed

Messenger of Truth
Jacqueline Winspear
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 0805078983

"London, 1931. The night before an exhibition of his artwork opens at a famed Mayfair gallery, the controversial artist Nick Bassington-Hope falls to his death. The police rule it an accident, but Nick's twin sister, Georgina, isn’t so sure. For help with the case, Georgina seeks out Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator. Before long, the evidence surrounding Nick’s death leads Maisie to the beaches of Dungeness in Kent and the underbelly of London’s art world, in another confrontation with the perilous legacy of the Great War.”

Although this is the fourth entry in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, Messenger of Truth was my introduction to the 1930s-era British sleuth. A blurb on the cover compares Maisie to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, only “younger, prettier, and not tied to St. Mary Mead.” From that, I expected a sort of madcap, cozy mystery—which did not turn out to be the case. The book’s tone reflects a somber time in England's history. Unemployed veterans of World War I—many maimed or disabled—fill the streets. Poverty runs rampant. And people are talking of that controversial political figure in Germany, Adolf Hitler.

The mystery of Nick Bassington-Hope's death is almost overshadowed by the drama unfolding in the characters' lives and the society around them. Maisie herself served as a nurse in the war, and she started life in service to a wealthy family. Consequently, she finds herself struggling to respect clients like the Bassington-Hope family, wealthy artists who have been able to indulge their interests. In stark contrast, Maisie's assistant, Billy, shares his small flat with an entire family of unemployed in-laws. When his young daughter catches a serious fever, there is no money for a doctor.

There are hints that Maisie suffered a breakdown recently, and she finds herself fascinated by Nick, the deceased artist and subject of her investigation. Nick's art reflects the same emotional turmoil and struggle to adjust after the war that Maisie herself is experiencing.

Messenger of Truth is not published for the Christian market, but has little to offend in the way of sex, violence, or language—although a couple of four-letter words are scattered about. Maisie's spiritual life seems to tend toward Eastern or New Age beliefs. When her assistant's daughter is ill, she does not pray but engages in a sort of visualization technique: “Opening her mind, she imagined the sweet face of Lizzie Beale…She told Lizzie that her heart was strong, that she could rest now, and that when she awoke, she would be well again.” Fortunately, this type of scene is not typical of the book as a whole.

If you're looking for a fast-paced thriller, this book probably isn't for you. But if you want a character-driven, thoughtful narrative that is rich in period detail, you'll enjoy Messenger of Truth.

Reviewed by Robin Johns Grant

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