By Brian Jarman
A young woman steps off the wooden escalator at Warren Street tube station and walks into the street. She’s smartly dressed in the style of the late 1920s. She looks a little stuck-up, but when she stops to talk to a news vendor, Jack, her accent is the same as his.
This was the scene that came to Jacqueline Winspear one morning when she was stuck in traffic in a downpour while driving to work south of San Francisco.
‘It was like watching a movie,’ says Jacqueline. Another half an hour down the road the first chapter of a novel was forming.
‘At the end of the day the whole book was in my head,’ says Jacqueline. ‘I came home and wrote the first chapter.’
And so her heroine, private eye Maisie Dobbs who has an office in Fitzroy Square, was born.
Jacqueline was born in South East London and emigrated to California 21 years ago. Her first job was in Fitzroy Square and she fell in love with it. She worked in publishing and wrote for education journals but never thought she’d write a novel.
‘I didn’t think I could,’ she says.
Since then Maisie Dobbs books have won awards and made the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s comparatively unknown this side of the Atlantic, but that could soon change because Allison and Busby have just published her seventh Maisie Dobbs crime novel, The Mapping of Love and Death.
Appropriately enough, the publishers are also based in Fitzrovia, in Charlotte Mews, which is where I meet her.
The novel relates how the remains of a young American are found in an old French battlefield in 1932. It proves to be the body of a missing war map-maker Michael Clifton. A post mortem reveals he was not killed in battle but murdered.
His parents hire Maisie to find the woman who wrote the love letters found on his body. She identifies herself only as The English Nurse, and the parents believe she may unlock the mystery of his death.
It was inspired by a letter written to her local newspaper in Santa Barbara.
‘It was a long letter from a former English policeman, David Bartlett, who ran small group tours of the battlefields of The Western Front,’ says Jacqueline. ‘He was involved in identifying some remains they found in Belgium.’
On the body were papers with the address of the Central Bank of Santa Barbara, and David wanted to know if anyone had any information.
Jaqueline got in touch with him and he told her that they’d also found on the body a set of expensive coloured German pens.
‘I knew they were draughtsmen’s pens,’ says Jacqueline. ‘I knew they were used to draw maps.’
That particular mystery was never solved, but Jacqueline started speculating on what could have happened. Known for her meticulous research, she started looking into cartography. Her love of maps came in handy, and one of the backdrops of The Mapping of Love and Death is the vital but unsung role cartographers played in the First World War.
Her fascination with the First World War started with family stories – her grandfather was wounded in The Somme and her grandmother was blinded in one eye while working in munitions at the Woolwich Arsenal – and grew with a visit to the battlefields of The Somme and Ypres in 1994.
‘I started imagining the people who were left behind,’ she says. ‘If a soldier dies you get a telegram, but if they go missing you’re left with a hope. What really fascinates me is what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
‘One of the groups truly impacted by the Great War were women. It was when they started becoming independent.’
Which brings us back to Maisie Dobbs. She came from lowly beginnings and after her mother died went into service in a large house in London. It had a library and Maisie used to sneak down in the middle of the night to read.
‘She’s discovered by the lady of the house, who has always fancied herself as a social reformer,’ says Jacqueline. ‘She sees this as an opportunity and sees to Maisie’s education.’
So Maisie is equally at home in the drawing room of a Mayfair mansion or an East End pie and mash shop. She has contacts in the underworld and the upper crust.
This makes Fitzrovia an ideal setting for her. Because just around the corner from the beautiful square is Warren Street. In the 1930s, as a family friend reminded Jacqueline, it was full of second-hand car dealers and ‘not a very salubrious area.’
And although Jacqueline has loads of books about old London, her favourite way of researching the area is just to wander around – she comes back about four times a year.
‘I love the history of the area,’ she says. ‘I love looking into a mews and imagining the horses there. ‘In Maisie’s day, you’d be walking in horse muck. Horses were still vying with cars on the street.’
It’s on these walks that Jacqueline pictures what was here before modern buildings, and finds clues for the authentic detail that makes her writing so vivid.
The children’s hospital in Coram Fields, for example, was demolished in the 1920s.
‘So when Maisie was walking past, it would have been a building site.’
Maisie’s next adventure, A Lesson in Secrets, is out next spring. Meanwhile she’s working on other books – fiction and non-fiction – but is keeping the subject matter close to her chest. She believes that talking about her writing interferes with the process.
For a writer who never thought she’d write a novel, she finds that Maisie Dobbs brings together many of her great interests – the First World War, the changing roles of women, Fitzrovia – and brings them alive.
‘You can touch truth more readily with fiction than you can with fact,’ she says.
The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear. Allison and Busby. £19.99.