Well, I was farther along in finishing this review than I thought.
Recommended for: lovers of lady detectives, historical fiction, and WW1
Maisie Dobbs is an independent young woman caught between two worlds, hoping to find her place in the new, modern world that emerges from the ashes of World War 1. The Great War smashed to bits the old order of the nineteenth century, leaving a young generation of Britons depleted and bereft. Years later, trying to leave behind the sorrows of the war, Maisie strikes out on her own to establish a private detective agency after her mentor retires.
Reflecting the vast social changes afoot, Maisie had given up her dreams of education in order to work as a maid in a grand London house. Ultimately, she was able to achieve those dreams when the lady she worked for discovers her intellectual gifts and found her a mentor, Maurice Blanche. Blanche not only educated her, leading to a place at Girton College, but provided her with professional training to be a private detective.
This is the first installment in a series of (so far) twelve mysteries featuring Maisie, a young woman of exceptional abilities. A few years ago, I read a later book in the series, initially unaware it was part of a series. I always wanted to start at the beginning because there were so many references to Maisie’s past.
I seem to be on a run of reading historical mysteries with women detectives. (Now why can’t make myself write a review of the simply fantastic book I read in between, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff? Hopefully it’s coming. Get on that, brain.)
In the first novel, it’s 1929 and Maisie has just started her own detective agency after the retirement of Maurice Blanche. One of her first cases is a simple matter of possible infidelity that evolves into a puzzle involving maimed WW1 vets and what we would now call PTSD. When the investigation requires some undercover work, Maisie recruits Billy Beale, a vet who works at her office building. Not only does the plot revolve around WW1 vets; the war experience saturates the novel. It’s as fresh in everyone’s mind as if it had happened yesterday; those whose lives weren’t destroyed are still struggling with the after effects.
We learn about Maisie’s earlier life through an extended flashback that takes up a good chunk of the story. She grew up working class in London. To make ends meet and provide Maisie security, her father finds her a position as a maid. When the war starts, she lies about her age in order to volunteer as a nurse on the front lines. Romance and tragedy ensue, the effects still lingering more than ten years later.
While the flashback certainly fleshes out Maisie’s character, it brings the action to a dead halt. You almost forget what was going on in the 1929 mystery plot as we learn about Maisie’s life from childhood to the war. As such, this is less of a traditional mystery than a character study framed by a mystery. This may or may not be to everyone’s taste and I’m not quite sure why the author and her editor chose this structure. Personally, I prefer a more meaty mystery where the plot predominates.
Not that I didn’t enjoy Maisie Dobbs. I did. Jacqueline Winspear is excellent at evoking the feeling of the period, the technology, the clothing, the social mores. She’s clearly done a great a deal of research to provide excellent world building. The action is enriched by an array of characters who form Maisie’s support group. The grief and sadness caused by the war are vividly rendered. While the mystery is somewhat thin, it provides other satisfactions in its themes which echo the concerns of the period and the coming cataclysm of World War 2.
As a character, Maisie is…well, a little too flawless. She’s too good. I don’t think she has a single negative trait, which makes her boring. She does suffer tragedy in this book, which is the only thing that adds complexity to her character. Perhaps she becomes more interesting in later books. I’m not jumping to read the next book in the series, but I may at a later point. I found the setting pretty interesting. Winspear is so good at depicting the period, you really feel like you’ve been plunked down in 1929. Maisie is plucky, for sure, and she’s so independent and competent, you can’t help cheering her on. Unique among fictional detectives, she focuses on her clients’ psychological well-being, in addition to solving the mystery. The next time I want a well-written foray in the 1920’s, I’ll definitely re-visit her world.