Detective Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane from the Special Branch has summoned her as she is named in a letter referring to the suicide and threatening harm unless the Government takes action to recognize and aid the unemployed starting with the thousands of veterans still suffering from their war injuries. With no government prepared to take action because of blackmail the search is on for the letter writer.
While the police and military intelligence check out groups on the margin – fascists, communists, IRA and suffragettes – Maisie looks among the host of injured veterans.
Winspear does not identify the writer but inserts passages from his powerfully written journal expressing his ever increasing rage and frustration over the government’s inaction. As the new year approaches he writes:
I have no further use of this life, of this body, or of this mind. But before I go, before I decline the opportunity to step forward into another year of sidelong glances and piteous abuse, I will make my mark. You will be sorry, so sorry not to have listened to me. I wanted only to be heard, only to be heard on behalf of those who cannot speak, the men whom war has crippled and poverty has silenced. There will be no parties, no gathering of joyous anticipation for us, the forgotten. So I will stop the big party. For Auld Lang Syne.
Like George Wilcox, the murderer in The Suspect by L.R. Wright we feel his need to strike out. We cannot support his actions but can understand his pain.
The situation sharply escalates when the writer demonstrates the ability to manufacture the types of poison gases used on the Western Front. Few mysteries have dealt with the consequences of the gas attacks of WW I. They are a horror far beyond the perils of bullets and bombs and shells.
What is the morality for a government which developed and used these weapons of mass destruction during the war and now is threatened by them?
The book explores the mental devastation of so many veterans. The diagnosis of that era, shell shock, is far more evocative of the damage done by war to the mind than the current phrasing of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only a fraction of the soldiers suffering from shell shock have been accepted by the medical establishment as so afflicted. Thousands barely exist in London. Too many are denied pensions.
Others function, even appear to be doing well for periods of time, but have never recovered from the war. Their minds are broken.
Personally, I recall a resident of Meskanaw who, in the language of my youth in the 1960’s, was described as having “nerves” as a result of action in World War II. I knew a woman who had been an air raid warden during the London blitz who could not be in a room where balloons were popping 40 years after the war.
Winspear brilliantly shows it was not only the soldiers whose mental health was damaged by the war. She has not yet fully recovered from her injuries and the loss of her love, Simon. She is still working through grief 13 years after war’s end and unable to have a normal relationship with a man. Yet she is making progress:
Looking into the past was like looking into a long tunnel, and she knew the tragedy of his wounding and his passing no longer touched her with such immediate rawness. It was more akin to an ache that came and went, like a breeze that lifts a lace curtain back from the window, then sets it down again.
Her best friend, Priscilla, seeing her three sons soon to be teenagers finds herself depressed as she reflects their futures on the deaths of her three brothers during the war.
While her assistant, Billy Beale, is doing better his wife, Doreen, who struggled to cope with the problems he brought home from the war is now increasingly depressed over the death of their daughter.
Maisie speaks of the loss of the soul for the most damaged yet the characters do not look to a common support. Winspear’s characters are not typical of their time in that none attend church nor seek comfort in the Christian faith. In the 1930’s most people went to church. To have none in the book was unlikely.
Among the Mad is a return to the quality of the earliest books in the series. Maisie is doing her best to heal the wounded souls around her as she solves the mystery. The book’s themes resonate 80 years later as nations around the world deal with the traumas of war veterans.
The title was perfect for the book. It was the best title for a book I have read in 2012. (Dec. 2/12)