From setting to time period, there is little to connect Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death and Wendy Webb’s The Tale of Halcyon Crane — except that the main character of each is a woman undergoing transformation, an often challenging and uncomfortable process. One is a capable, career-driven woman in Great Depression-era London; the other is a woman without a past trying to find out how her true identity is bound to a familiar resort island in the Great Lakes. Readable, entertaining and often thought-provoking, both books have a general appeal, and both would make interesting book club choices.
The Mapping of Love and Death
By Jacqueline Winspear
The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear is undoubtedly my favorite historical mystery series. Well crafted and intriguing, this latest installment in the adventures of 1930s London psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs is a must for fans of the series, but it also includes enough detail and background information to appeal to someone new to this fascinating cast of characters.
At the beginning of the story, Maisie receives a letter from Charles Hayden, an American surgeon with whom Maisie worked when she was a nurse during the Great War. Charles, writing at the request of the wealthy Clifton family, needs Maisie to discover the truth about the death of the Clifton’s youngest son, Michael, whose remains were recently unearthed with those of the rest of his cartography unit at a former battlefield in France. After reading the autopsy report, Maisie comes to the same conclusion as Charles — that while the rest of his unit perished during a shelling attack, Michael was murdered.
Found with Michael’s body is his journal and a packet of love letters from a mysterious “English Nurse.” Eager to discover any details of their son’s last days, the Cliftons travel to London to meet with Maisie and allow her to examine the journal and letters in her search for the identity of the English Nurse. Later, both the Cliftons are attacked in their hotel room and left for dead.
The novel unfolds as Maisie attempts to piece together Michael’s life. Did the land he purchased in California before his enlistment have something to do with his death? Would the identity of the English Nurse lead to his murderer? Was the culprit someone Michael trusted or someone he was afraid of?
As Maisie unravels Michael’s wartime romance, she is forced to confront the memories of her own relationship with Simon Lynch, the once-brilliant doctor, who was left permanently brain damaged by the battlefield and from whose recent death she had yet to fully recover. With the help of her ailing mentor and her best friend, Maisie comes to realize that no one has been left unscarred by the war. She soon finds herself looking in unexpected directions to find the love and companionship she deprived herself of for so long.
The Mapping of Love and Death is trademark Winspear — vivid period detail, insightful character studies and suspenseful storylines. But the most compelling aspect of her work is her main character, Maisie Dobbs. Infinitely likable yet often inscrutable, Maisie is the reason that I am always sorry to see a Winspear novel end and extremely impatient for the next one to begin.
The Tale of Halcyon Crane
By Wendy Webb
Holt Paperbacks, $14
Wendy Webb’s debut novel opens as Hallie James, a 30-something woman at a crossroads in her life, is traveling to Grand Manitou Island (a thinly veiled and fictionalized Mackinac Island) in the Great Lakes. Only a few weeks before, Hallie had received a letter from Madlyn Crane, a woman purporting to be her mother, who Hallie believed died in a fire when she was only seven years old. Accompanying the letter is a note from attorney William Archer, regretting to inform her of Madlyn’s death and requesting a meeting with Hallie to discuss the contents of her will. Hallie’s father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, dies only days later, leaving Hallie with many unanswered questions.
When Hallie arrives on Grand Manitou, she is informed that she has inherited the Crane fortune, including the Victorian mansion — complete with a housekeeper reminiscent of Mrs. Danvers, three malevolent ghosts and an unsolved 30-year-old murder mystery. Hallie, or Halcyon, decides to stay on the island for the time being. She intends to discover what horrible secret forced her loving and peaceful father to take her away from her mother and her home when she was seven.
Séances, secrets and hostile islanders abound as Hallie uncovers a family history that “sound[s] more like fairy tales — Grimm’s unfortunately — with witches, haunting, and malevolence all wrapped up in regrettable and sometimes bloody mishaps.” As Hallie comes to terms with her past, she also learns to look to her future as she finds love and romance with the handsome William Archer. Throw in some delightfully eerie and spooky details (many of which will be familiar to Mackinac Island visitors) and you have the Independent Bookseller’s Great Lakes Great Reads pick, The Tale of Halcyon Crane, a perfect summer holiday treat — light, easy to read, yet compellingly creepy.