The White Lady: A Novel
“The White Lady is a perfect fit for lovers of historical mysteries featuring intrepid, resourceful women who emerge as equal to their male colleagues and sometimes are more courageous.”
One character in Jacqueline Winspear’s new standalone novel remarks: “So, I reckon crime is like war, or war’s a crime—sometimes I wonder which way the wind blows.” This twinning of war and crime is an integral element in The White Lady, as Elinor DeWitt becomes a teenage operative and trained killer in Belgium during WWI as part of the effort to sabotage the Germans. After an escape to England, she transforms into Elinor White, but when WWII begins, she is asked to serve behind the Nazi lines as a Special Operations Executive agent. Then, once again home in England, she discovers an entrenched criminal enterprise and must act, though Elinor soon uncovers treacherous links between her past and present.
The novel spans WWI and WWII and the postwar periods, with chapters interspersed between 1914 and 1947. The story begins in 1947, when Elinor is settled in a “grace and favor” property in Kent, given to those who provided special service to the Crown. When she encounters a little neighbor girl, Susie, a door opens to memories Elinor wishes to forget. Susie’s parents, Rose and Jim Mackie, have their own fears: escaping Jim’s war-time past as a bomb detonator, but of imminent concern, eluding the tentacles of his gangland family, who are threatening the safety of Susie and Rose. Although Rose believes they have “dragged themselves out from under the fingernails of the Mackie family,” they are in danger. Elinor uses her connections to investigate the “big job” the Mackies are plotting and to protect her neighbors.
In the midst of this “contemporary” plot set in 1947, Elinor’s narration recedes to Belgium in 1914 during the German incursion. When she is 12, with her feckless older sister Cecily, she becomes a member of La Dame Blanche, a group of heroic women and girls spying on the Germans and derailing their troop and supply trains. She escapes Belgium with Cecily and her British-born mother and attempts to live a quiet life in England until, at age 38, Elinor is recruited as an SOE agent, with the rank of captain, and parachutes into Belgium with Stephen Warren. One horrendous event occurs which will haunt her later, when she meets young Susie in 1947. Learning the truth about this nightmare and seeking to disrupt the Mackie network, Elinor enlists Warren’s aid—he is now a Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard.
Elinor White is a character similar to Winspear’s famous Maisie Dobbs, whose impressive series (17 novels) covers the same historical eras and features a brave female protagonist with a tragic history. While Maisie becomes a private detective in London, traveling the countryside in search of killers, Elinor’s story includes more of her war-time adventures, though she, too, becomes a sleuth. The advantage of a long series is that readers grow intimately involved and develop profound empathy for the narrator and her life; in The White Lady, although we care about Elinor, her friendships and romances are mostly absent, thus she is a less well-rounded character compared to Maisie.
To compensate for the lack of relationships, Winspear has plunged Elinor into two perilous wars, yet the author could have mined the action for more dramatic richness and extended these scenes. The novel has mysterious elements and some suspense, but it doesn’t fall squarely into either genre. Rather, it is a portrait of a redoubtable woman who unexpectedly is drawn into solving mysteries that have surfaced in the present but also have roots in her earlier life.
Regardless of the hybrid nature of Winspear’s creations, spending time with Elinor (and Maisie) is a pleasure. The author writes with masterful confidence about London and the country, the behavior and mood of war-plagued Britain, and seats the reader firmly in the time periods, achieving an addictive “you-are-there” experience.
Here is a passage in which Elinor muses about her investigative role: “She realized how far she would go to bring order to the nagging doubt and deep frustration she felt when the jigsaw pieces of gathered information refused to slip into place.” Or this summation of her solitary life: “for Elinor belonging had been so elusive; a butterfly settling on a rose for just the briefest moment, leaving behind only a passing memory of color.”
Winspear is an excellent stylist, but two oddities stand out: “they had alibis up the yin-yang,” an expression that wasn’t used in 1947 and, according to Merriam-Webster, originated in 1968. And a line of Elinor’s 1942 dialogue: “it’s best we keep schtum about our past lives.” Slang that wasn’t popularized until 1958 or so and sounds peculiar coming from Elinor. The publisher notes that “changes will be made in this proof copy before books are printed,” so perhaps these phrases will be deleted.
The White Lady is a perfect fit for lovers of historical mysteries featuring intrepid, resourceful women who emerge as equal to their male colleagues and sometimes are more courageous. As a neighbor comments about Elinor, “She’s handy with a gun.” And she’s very clever. This is an excellent outing for Winspear, and if this novel is enjoyed, the first in her series, Maisie Dobbs, is highly recommended.