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Friday, 21 February 2014

FFB - Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, was published in 2003. It is the first of a series of detective mysteries set in England between the two world wars and certainly promised to garner a strong following of crime readers and indeed anyone who likes period novels. It won the prestigious Agatha Award and the Macavity Award, both for Best First Novel. Seems fitting to mention it in this 100th anniversary year of the beginning of WWI.

The story begins in the spring of 1929 and we’re immediately introduced to Maisie who is setting up her own private investigation agency in London. But she is not quite what she seems. Gradually, we get to know her until we’re drawn into a flashback – 1910 to 1917 - that amounts to over half the book, in which her humble beginnings are revealed and her strong and endearing character is developed.

Previously, Maisie had worked on investigation cases with her mentor, Maurice, but he’d now retired and she wanted to continue alone.  Apart from using observation, Maisie has developed an interesting psychological methodology, one aspect of which is to mimic the stance of an individual to glean how they’re feeling, and this comes across convincingly. She was also instructed by the mysterious Mr Khan on ways to remain calm and to organise her mental faculties. She engages the help of Billy Beale, an ex-soldier, as her assistant and office manager.

When her first case walked through her door, it seemed a straight-forward if rather boring infidelity issue. The man feared his wife was having an affair. While she agrees to take on the case, Maisie asks the aggrieved husband what value he places on understanding, compassion and forgiveness. This is indeed an unusual private investigator. She will ferret out the truth, but she also feels a responsibility regarding how the truth is dealt with by her clients too. The suspected wife leads Maisie down pathways that she’d mentally closed for many years so that besides uncovering something sinister, she also peels back the shroud covering a part of her dead past.

Told with compassion and never maudlin, the story is primarily about the walking wounded from the war. The writing style is excellent. Well-researched yet never noticeably so, the book captures the time and the people precisely.

Some characters and stories ‘write themselves’. That doesn’t mean they aren’t hard work to write. It’s just that the character seems to live and breathe for the author and won’t let go. When it happens, it’s a marvellous feeling. Jacqueline Winspear was an expat English journalist working in California when she was driving to work and stopped at some traffic lights. And while waiting, she saw in her mind’s eye a woman coming up through Warren Street Station turnstile and indeed essentially the entire first chapter of what was to be her first novel. And the more she wrote, the more the characters revealed themselves to her. Before long it was obvious that scenes and events not pertinent to the first book were appearing before her mind’s eye, so she realised she had a series in her head wanting to get out.

Her first book is dedicated to her grandfather Jack, who was severely wounded and suffered shell-shock in the Somme, and her grandmother Clara, who was partially blinded at Woolwich Arsenal during an explosion that killed several girls working alongside her. Inevitably, she developed an interest in the ‘war to end all wars’ even as a child. While the mysteries are not war novels as such, they reflect the after-effects of that devastating period when so many young men never came home.
Coming of age at a time when the First World War and its aftermath began altering society, many women like Maisie remained unmarried because quite simply there was a shortage of men to wed. Besides being a well-researched book of the period, it has an emotional depth and a cast of interesting individual characters.
I’m reluctant to say more about the plot in Maisie Dobbs, save that there are a couple of quite moving revelations at the end. Without doubt, this is a book with heart.

There are ten books in the Maisie Dobbs series:
Maisie Dobbs (2003)
Birds of a Feather (2004)
Pardonable Lies (2005)
Messenger of Truth (2006)

An Incomplete Revenge (2008)
Among the Mad (2009)
A Lesson in Secrets (2011)
Elegy for Eddie (2012)
Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013)





Chap O'Keefe said...

Thank you for pointing me in this direction, Nik. Although I always enjoy crime and mystery novels set in this period, I'm almost ashamed to say I've never sampled any of the Maisie Dobbs books. On the strength of your recommendation, I've just placed an order for the first two titles in the series.

Nik said...

Thanks for the comment, Chap. Truth is, there are too many books out there and we can't hope to read them all, alas.