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WWI's fascinations prove an inspiration



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As a child in England, Jacqueline Winspear remembered seeing her grandfather sitting in the kitchen, soaking his scarred legs. Wounded by shrapnel at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 during World War I, he was still removing minuscule bits of metal from his skin until the day he died at 77 in 1966.

"Someone asked me how that was possible," Winspear says by phone from her home in Ojai, Calif. "But shrapnel fragments are like tiny metal splinters working their way out."

The writer dedicated her first mystery, Maisie Dobbs, to the memory of her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. Her grandmother was partially blinded in a munitions factory explosion in World War I .

Winspear's third book in the series, Pardonable Lies (Henry Holt, $23), recently arrived in stores. Like the other two, it is set in the era of World War I, a conflict that has fascinated her since she was a girl. "Every church in England has a memorial," she says.

The three novels also share something else: Each depicts the collision between 19th-century ideals of gallantry and 20th-century warfare with its almost incomprehensible bloodletting and the often shell-shocked, disillusioned soldiers left in its wake.

Winspear's central figure of Maisie Dobbs works as a psychologist and private investigator in Depression-era London. At 18, she had served as a front-line nurse in France, where she witnessed the devastation of trench warfare. Wounded in a shell attack herself, Dobbs also lost the love of her life, Simon Lynch, incapacitated and confined to a convalescent home.

Through her protagonist, Winspear says, "I wanted to look at what happened to these 'surplus women'" -- women who sacrificed their sweethearts and potential husbands to the war.

Maisie Dobbs, published two years ago, and her second, Birds of a Feather, published last year, have won a slew of prestigious awards. Her books are less whodunits than why-dunits, more P.D. James than Agatha Christie. Although the plots center on solving murders, the crimes are rooted in the turmoil and enormous social changes created by the First World War.

In Pardonable Lies, Dobbs is asked by a prominent barrister to confirm the death of a young aviator in France in 1917. The book probes the obsession with the occult that was triggered by the war's loss of life.

Winspear, a former publishing executive specializing in hard science academic texts, moved to the USA 15 years ago.

Why? "Fate," she says with a laugh. In 1992, at age 37, she decided to scale back to make time for writing.

She never considered fiction until one morning, sitting in traffic and daydreaming, the character of Maisie Dobbs came to her. She had finished a third of the manuscript when a horseback riding accident kept her homebound for six months.

She finished Maisie Dobbs, found an agent and now writes full time.

The fourth book in the series, Messenger of Truth, will be published next fall. TV rights to the character have been optioned by a UK production company.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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