27 July 2022

A Dangerous Place


After the tenth book in her Maisie Dobbs series, Jackie Winspear took a break.  She wrote a standalone, and then two years later she brought Maisie back in A Dangerous Place.  It seems to me to signal a significant - not to say wrenching – turn. 

A Dangerous Place finds Maisie in Gibraltar.  The year is 1937, and just across the line in Spain, the savagery of the Civil War is drawing in the major combatants.  Britain pretends neutrality; the Germans bomb Guernica, and the Russians support the Republicans, but this is a dress rehearsal for a wider war, between the Fascists and the Reds, and the larger pretense is that this is purely local, and of no consequence to the calculations of the Great Powers.  Gibraltar is awash in spies.  Although it appears sunlit and cheerful, the subtext is more akin to Casablanca than The Wizard of Oz.

I want to pause for a moment, and consider the background.  Europe in the 1930’s was a snakepit.  There was enormous income disparity and class division.  The old ruling class was terrified of Bolshevism; the working classes wanted a living wage.  Hitler didn’t arise in a vacuum.  There were the Black Hundreds in Russia, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Arrow Cross in Hungary.  The common denominator was of course hatred for the Jews – not that the Poles and the French (or the British and Americans, for that matter) were shy in this regard. 

My point, here, is that Maisie, herself a survivor of the first war, 1914-1918, a battlefield triage nurse, with combat fatigue – post-traumatic stress – is no stranger to these questions and concerns, but the stories hitherto have been domestic, by and large.  They hinge on the personal, and the close observation of detail.  You could easily call them cozies, and not be far off the mark.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  A Dangerous Place is a spy story.  Maisie even gets herself smuggled into wartime Madrid, as a visiting fireman, trading on a title she isn’t sure she deserves. 

The dangerous place, however, isn’t on the outside.  The turmoil, the doubt, the anxieties, are all internal.  The inciting, compelling incidents, the dramatic engines, if you will, take place off-stage.  The discovery of the dead guy, which sets the story in motion, happens in the reader’s peripheral vision.  You’re not there.  You’re told about it afterwards.  The huge hole in Maisie’s life, what happened in the two years she was absent from us, is explained (not explained, simply retailed) in a series of letters at the beginning of the book.  Winspear wants to get this plot furniture out of the way, and get on with the real story, which is Maisie’s disintegration and recovery.

There’s a moment about halfway through.  “She knew she had been remiss.  …It was long past time to bring her whole heart to the investigation, instead of leaving something of herself behind, curled up, lost, grieving, and afraid.”  Something of herself left behind.  This is really what the book’s about.  And although much of Maisie’s history, in the previous books, has been about unlocking and engaging with the past, this is the first time she’s seemed to actually come untethered, to disassociate – if that’s the right term.  She steps outside herself, she disengages, because if she were to stay inside, madness would beckon.  Maisie is a healer; she finds her purpose in repairing the damage other people have suffered.  Here, she has to turn her attention to herself, and apply those skills to her own incapacitating grief.  Rescue is in retreat.

This isn’t the book to start with, by any means.  I’ve mentioned before that I read Jackie’s memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, before I read any of the Maisie mysteries, and that’s what got me started.  I began with Maisie Dobbs, and read them serially.  A Dangerous Place packs the punch it does, for me, because it takes the familiar, and subverts expectations. 


  1. Her memoir is indeed a very fine piece of work.

  2. Which makes me wonder if a change in Winspear's life precipitated the abrupt change of direction.

    Always interesting, David, always.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>