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Posts Tagged ‘female private investigator’

CRITICAL MASS by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. (Vic) Warshawski’s friend Lottie Herschel was rescued from the Holocaust, transported to England on the Kindertransport with another young girl, Kathe Saginor.  That was more than seventy years ago, but the long arm of history has reached into present-day Chicago, bringing with it lies, betrayals, and murder.

Lottie was a child of the upper middle class in Vienna before the war.  Her playmate Kathe was the granddaughter of the Herschels’ seamstress.  Kathe’s own mother, Martina, was too involved in her scientific career to care for her daughter.

The two girls were separated upon their arrival in England and didn’t see each other for years afterward.  They led very different lives until Kathe, now renamed Kitty, ended up in Chicago, the city where Lotte resides and has a medical practice.  Lotte never married, but Kitty married an American serviceman and has a daughter, Judy, who became a drug addict and dealer.  It is Judy whose story precipitates Vic’s involvement in Lotte and Kitty’s tangled histories.

Searching for Judy, Vic finds an abandoned crystal meth-making house, a starved dog, and a man’s corpse.  When Vic tells Kitty what she has found, Kitty lets Vic know in no uncertain terms that she has no interest in where her daughter is or what trouble she is in now.

But Kitty is very concerned about Judy’s son Martin, who left their home and his job ten days ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Cordell Breen, the president of the company where Martin works as a computer programmer, wasn’t told that Martin hasn’t been at work for more than a week, and he is now concerned that the young man may have taken some important confidential information with him.

Critical Mass goes back and forth between the present in Chicago and the late thirties and early forties in Vienna.  Martin’s great-grandmother, Martina, was a brilliant physicist who lost her research and teaching jobs because she was Jewish.  She continued as best she could, reading scientific journals and making copious equations about heavy water and atomic molecules, often disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the time.  Her research was ignored due to her religion and gender, but she persevered.  Sent to a concentration camp during the war, Martina was never heard from again.

Despite opposition from Kitty and Lotte, Vic decides to look for Judy and eventually for Martin.  This involves her with the family of Benjamin Dzornen, Martina’s mentor in Vienna and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.  The remaining Dzornens, his two daughters and a son, have only contempt for Kitty, her daughter, and her grandson.  There’s a secret connecting these families–the Herschels, the Saginors, and the Dzornens–and Vic is determined to find out what it is, in addition to locating Martin and Judy.

V. I. is, as always, tough, determined, and willing to put herself in dangerous situations to get at the truth.  Warned off by friends and foes alike, she continues her search in order to ferret out the story of Kitty’s family.  Critical Mass is a powerful novel with fascinating characters, and the plot resonates with historical truths many people would prefer to forget.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at her web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads blog at her web site.





THE MAPPING OF LOVE AND DEATH by Jacqueline Winspear: Book Review

The Great War has been over for fourteen years when this novel opens, but the body of one of its dead soldiers has just been recovered.

Maisie Dobbs, the heroine of The Mapping of Love and Death, was a nurse during the war. After her return to civilian life she became what the British called an “enquiry agent,” their term for a private investigator.  In the first book of the series, Maisie Dobbs, it’s 1929; in the seventh novel, it’s 1932, and Maisie has become a successful businesswoman and sometime consultant to Scotland Yard.

Maisie returns home from the war whole in body, but her emotions and her spirit are badly damaged by the sights she has seen and by the injuries to Simon Lynch, the man she loves, who returned home shellshocked and in a nursing home.

In The Mapping of Love and Death, Maisie receives a letter from an American friend, a physician whom she met during their service in the war, alerting her that an American couple will be contacting her regarding their search for the girlfriend of their late son.  The Cliftons are a very wealthy Boston family whose younger son, Michael, enlisted in the British army at the outset of the Great War, bringing his special talents as a cartographer to the Allies.

Although the parents were informed in 1916 that Michael had been killed, his body has just been discovered in France. Along with his body there were letters written to a woman he apparently was in love with, but there’s no name or address with these letters.  The parents want Maisie to find this woman and perhaps shed some light on the last two years of their son’s life.

Jacqueline Winspear has built a wonderful stage for the Maisie Dobbs’ novels.  The books give a picture of life in England after the war–the difficult economic times, the privations, the soldiers returning wounded in body and/or mind.

Since this is the seventh novel in the series, there’s a great deal of back story that goes with Maisie.  Born into a rural servant family, she is “taken up” by the wealthy Lord and Lady Compton who early on recognize her intelligence and abilities.  She’s had privileges far beyond others in her social class, including an education at Girton, the women’s college at Cambridge.  But given the strict British social class system, Maisie can never be part of the upper class and yet obviously isn’t typical of the working class either.  She’s neither fish nor fowl.

There are numerous recurring characters in the series, and although they are well described and their backgrounds given, I will repeat what I always say–try to read this series from the beginning. Every novel builds on the ones before, and the characters’ lives are so richly drawn that one should get to know them from the start.  There’s Daisy’s father, Frankie, who is in charge of the Comptons’ stables; Priscilla Partridge, a friend from the war, now a society matron with a wounded husband and three sons; Lord and Lady Compton, through whose largesse Maisie was able to further her education; Billy Beale, her office assistant; and most importantly, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who took Maisie under his wing and made her his assistant.  Each one plays an important part in Maisie’s life.

For an insightful look into the mores and times of post-World War I England and an introduction to a strong and interesting heroine, one cannot do better than the Maisie Dobbs series.

You can read more about Jacqueline Winspear at her web site.