Shell shock, madness, and the Great Depression

Shell shock: Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

If your taste in crime fiction runs to blood, guts, and gore, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading Jacqueline Winspear‘s Maisie Dobbs series. If, instead, you favor a more cerebral approach focused on three-dimensional character development and psychological insight, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in Winspear’s outstanding work.

Maisie Dobbs is a brilliant young working-class woman who gained an elite education under the sponsorship of the aristocratic family that employed her as a maid. Cutting short her university studies, she volunteered as a nurse in World War I, where she witnessed the conflict’s senseless carnage first-hand and was wounded by the same artillery shell that eventually killed her fiance. Now, after years of apprenticeship with a physician who was involved in top-secret intelligence work, she is on her own. Maisie bills herself as a “psychologist and investigator,” and she quickly proves her skill in both arenas.

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6) by Jacqueline Winspear @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In Among the Mad, the sixth novel of twelve (so far) in the series, 33-year-old Maisie finds herself and her sidekick, Billy Beale, pressed into service by New Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Branch. Together with her on-again, off-again friend and collaborator, Inspector Stratton, and the head of Special Branch, she is charged with finding the man who has threatened the Prime Minister himself. The wide-ranging search takes her and her colleagues into the worlds of Britain’s emerging Fascist Party, the militant labor movement, the country’s growing chemical-warfare program, and the network of asylums where shell-shocked soldiers and others deemed “mad” are locked away.

The action in Among the Mad unfolds over the last week of 1931 and the first month of 1932, a time when Britain was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression. As its title suggests, one of the book’s overarching themes is the primitive care of mental illness in that era. As in previous novels in the series, the persistent impacts of World War I loom large, too. But equally important is the emphasis on the desperation of the millions of men now out of work, many of them veterans of the war. With cameo appearances by two prominent historical figures—Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and future Fascist Party founder Sir Oswald MosleyAmong the Mad qualifies as a superior historical novel as well as first-class detective fiction.

For further reading

I’ve reviewed all the novels in this series at The Maisie Dobbs novels from Jacqueline Winspear.

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