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'Pardonable Lies' tells emotional truths

Pardonable Lies
By Jacqueline Winspear
Henry Holt, 342 pp., $23

Jacqueline Winspear has opened the eyes of many American readers to a forgotten world. England between the world wars was a sad, proud place, with survivors struggling to rebuild and carry on through grief and deprivation. Winspear's protagonist, Maisie Dobbs, is one of these strong souls: A former nurse, she's seen the then-unparalleled carnage of the ''Great War" firsthand and has also lost her fiance, a doctor, to shell shock. She's also a member of a changing class structure. Born into a serving class, she's been educated by her employer and now treads lightly between the world of her father, a groom, and her noble patrons. But ''Pardonable Lies," the third Maisie Dobbs book, goes beyond this kind of late ''Upstairs, Downstairs" domestic drama to present psychologically sound mysteries with very real characters.

By the time ''Pardonable Lies" opens, Dobbs has already established herself as a private investigator with strong psychological skills. So it's no wonder that she's called in to help when a young girl is taken in by the police. Found at the scene of a murder, covered in blood and holding the murder weapon -- a knife -- young Avril Jarvis seems guilty. But Dobbs's instincts tell her that more is going on. As she looks into the story of the barely adolescent Jarvis, she finds echoes of her own life. Like Dobbs, Jarvis has also lost a parent. But unlike the motherless Dobbs, the fatherless Jarvis's remaining parent did not protect her. She, too, was sent off to a different life, but a horrible one that only makes Dobbs more aware of her own blessings.

To enlist legal aid for Jarvis, Dobbs agrees to take on a case for a prominent barrister, Sir Cecil Lawton. Like so many, Lawton lost a son in France. But ''lost" seems to be the operative word. Lawton's late wife remained convinced that their missing son was still alive, and Dobbs realizes that Lawton is afraid this is true. To get to the truth, Dobbs will have to return to France, where she herself was wounded and lost so much. Adding to the burden is her dear friend Priscilla, who's never resolved fully how one of her brothers died. With all these cases and memories weighing on her, the Dobbs who departs for Calais is carrying some very heavy baggage. Throw in some apparent attempts on her life, and it's a wonder she makes it at all. But she does, eventually facing up to her own grief in ways that she hadn't in her two previous books. Even bogged down by work, Dobbs finds she can no longer hide from her own loss, and her final capitulation to these feelings, natural and horrific, stands as the emotional core of the book, if not the series.

Winspear excels in depicting trauma, the kind of long-term grief that characters, particularly her restrained Britons, express only in a gesture or a word. When Billy, her assistant, stands aside to light a cigarette after visiting Dobbs, he understands. ''He'd seen it before. . . . Seen a man swear he was well. . . . Then before you knew it he was down again, closer to the edge than ever before." Where she fails is in the kind of emotional shorthand she uses to describe her heroine's emotional if not exactly psychic strength. ''It was as if she were talking to the girl without opening her mouth," another observer notes, without conveying any sense of how Dobbs works her magic. Dobbs has become a sort of psychological saint, and it weakens her credibility.

No matter, there's enough emotional truth in this novel, like its predecessors, to keep the characters real and sympathetic. And if the various mysteries become a bit too intertwined for credibility, that's a forgivable sin. All these traumas came from the same war, and it's right that Maisie Dobbs should face them down.

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