on 27 January 2010
I loved this book. On Amazon it is often compared to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and while I have not read those books, I have seen the TV series and yes, I can agree with them. It resembles that series BUT... at the same time not.
Maisie Dobbs grows up in a very strict social order and class system without any prospects beyond becoming a maid. But she has a very bright mind and the luck of working for a woman that wants to make a changes in society. She is given the opportunity to study and step out of the class where she was born. Then World War 1 breaks out and she lies about her age to become a nurse and help out. Not until the war is over, can she return to her studies and then continue being trained by a man that is doing something so modern as being an investigator and psychologist at the same time.
Some people have complained that there is only a mystery at the beginning and at the end of the book. Yes, that is true. At the same time, I as a reader wanted the story in between. The whole middle section tells Maisie's story so that the author can make a series out of this heroine. She builds up Maisie's backround so we know where Maisie is coming from, what she has encountered during the war and what people she knows. This needs to be done somewhere and why not after having started the mystery???
Since the book is set in 1929, cases can not be solved quickly and have to be done so without modern technology and often with the help of psychology. She is an Hercules Poirot and a Miss Marple and yet, entirely a person of her own, an loveable, attractive young lady with a broken heart.
Fans of Maisie Dobbs will delight in this new addition to her series, and those who are new to her have a treat in store. All these mysteries take place in the aftermath of World War I, this one taking place between September and October, 1930. Maisie is a survivor, having enlisted, at seventeen, in the nursing corps, where she served in France in the final, horrific days of the war. A terrible attack, which killed many of the doctors, nurses, and soldiers she was tending, has left her suffering nightmares more than ten years later. Now working as a psychologist/investigator in London, Maisie stays busy to avoid dealing with her demons.
Three mysteries unfold simultaneously. Avril Jarvis, age 13, is arrested for the murder of her "uncle" when she is found with a knife in her hand and blood on her clothes. Penniless, she has no counsel until Maisie takes a case involving Sir Cecil Lawton, whom she persuades to represent Avril as part of her fee. Sir Cecil's son Ralph disappeared during the war in France, and his wife, believing him still alive, has exacted a deathbed promise that Sir Cecil will search for him. In addition, one of Maisie's friends from the Ambulance Corps, now married to a wealthy author in France, has begged her to try to find where the third of her brothers died and was buried in France.
The horrors of World War I pervade the novel, and when Maisie goes to France, these horrors come alive, not just for the reader but for Maisie, and she learns she must "slay her dragons" at last. Intriguing characters add color to the novel--a doctor who has been with the secret service, a psychic who knows too much about Maisie, a paralyzed member of Parliament who was a close friend of Ralph Lawton, and an elegant woman and her granddaughter who live in a decaying castle.
As the mysteries develop, a plethora of key photographs, kept by numerous characters, connect some of the characters with specific times and places, and romantic elements, such as a secret passageway leading to a musty room, a hidden journal written in code, assumed identities, an important clue buried under a tree, and several attacks on Maisie keep the action moving. Physical details of clothing, social customs, and landscape give a sense of realism to this romantic mystery and all its coincidences, and there is just enough danger to sustain the tension in this well written and unusual addition to the genre. Mary Whipple
on 21 January 2007
I'd prefer to review this along with the second book, Birds of a Feather, simultaneously, because I thought that there were problems with the first book which the author had resolved by the second. In Maisie Dobbs, it seems to me as though Winspear doesn't wear her research lightly enough: she gives in to the temptation to cram in all the knowledge she's gleaned about the Great War period into a single book, even when it isn't particularly valuable to the plot.
The book could have benefitted also from a more alert editor: in the retreat, a man 'not yet thirty' is mentioned just a couple of pages before 'the youngest man she met must have been thirty'. Those kind of mistakes (paradoxically just like the over layering of period detail) create a barrier between reader and narrative.
However, I think that Winspear has created a wonderful character (even if she is a little 'too good to be true'). And the story she is given in the second book allows all the potential of the first book to blossom. In fact, it seems to me that Maisie's "back story" need not have been narrated. The hints to her past that one can glimpse from the second book are surely enough, and Winspear could have allowed us to gain more and more knowledge of her over a larger series of books.
By rights, I'm just the right reader for this book: I love mysteries (especially British ones), I find WWI fascinating, I find the interwar era and the whole "upstairs-downstairs" British class stuff interesting. And yet...while mildly diverting and obviously well-researched, this first book in a series about a plucky young female investigator/psychologist really didn't work for me. It's written as if the intended readership were 10-14 year-old girls, which is fine, but as an adult, it's hard to find Nancy Drewish escapades of a flawless heroine all that fulfilling.
The framework is a little unconventional (though not the disaster some reviewers make it out to be): the first part of the book introduces us to 20something Maisie Dobbs, just opening her business in London. Her first case is a classic assignment: a man who is worried his wife is cheating on him wants Maisie to check into it. As her investigation unfolds there are allusions to Maisie's past and a mysterious mentor, but nothing is spelled out. Suddenly, the story drifts back in time to 1910 or so, and we are reintroduced to a younger Maisie as she enters service as a housemaid for an aristocratic family. We follow dutifully along as her employers discover her reading Latin in the library and extend their patronage, allowing her to be tutored by their strange friend (and apparent spy) Maurice, and eventually supporting her bid to go to Cambridge (Girton College). Despite success at school, when World War I starts, she decides to join the Red Cross, and eventually serves as a nurse in France, where she witnesses the horror of war.
The final third of the book then shifts back the the postwar era, and Maisie's patron asks her help in a family matter. This all dovetails with her earlier case, as well as the war and the scars (psychic and physical) left by the war. The mystery isn't substantial enough to satisfy most fans of the genre, and anyone with any discernment is going to find the climax painfully bad. (All I'll say is that involves singing...) As a detective, Maisie isn't particularly compelling -- her technique is a mix of keen observation and psychology. However, she's even less compelling as a character. Maisie's one of those plucky underdogs designed to provoke maximum reader projection: born into semi-poverty, raised by single father, highly intelligent, uncommonly perceptive, always composed, humble, beloved by all, and possessing big violet eyes. She's the kind of character everyone likes to imagine they would be, had they lived in that time and been born into those circumstances. The supporting cast is fairly pat: vegetable-seller father (with a heart of gold), feisty upper-class patroness (with a heart of gold), prim butler (with a heart of gold), plump cook (with a heart of gold), Cockney handyman/sidekick (with a heart of gold), etc...
The book isn't bad (except for the climax, which is terrible), it's just not very satisfying for adult readers looking for complex characters and a meaty plot. It suffers from feeling very much like a book designed to establish setting and characters for a series. I may read onward in the series (the next two are Birds of a Feather and Pardonable Lies), but may wait for the inevitable BBC TV series this will spawn.
on 18 March 2008
The first of a series of detective mysteries set in England between the two world wars and certainly promises 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. I'd recommend that you start the series with this one.
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.
on 6 July 2010
I really love mysteries and as a result am very picky about what I read. I started this book a bit uncertain but soon found myself enthralled. The history adds to the mix of events nicely and the Maisie Dobbs character is a perfect representation of how women developed after the war. Jacqueline Winspear writes extremely well, giving you clues to the solution of the mystery, adding interesting facts about the characters and draws you into the story. I sat down and read it on one innings! It was so good that I have bought the rest of the series and in four days have read six books! I can't wait for the next one.
I was handed this book on the recommendation of a friend, and though it's actually the third in the Maisie Dobbs series and I haven't read any of the ones prior to this, I think it can quite easily be read as a standalone novel as just enough back story to the characters and past events is given. I will say however that I have enjoyed this book so much that I will definitely be going back to the start of the series and reading the others set before this one as well. Though I enjoy my `cosy' mysteries well enough, there was something infinitely appealing about Maisie Dobbs and the era this book is set in is incredibly interesting- adding just a little bit extra to the story. The plot is also very well crafted with just the right amount of intrigue and suspense. The story isn't entirely predictable or cliché either and cleverly ties in history as well as mystery. After reading this novel I have to say that in future Maisie Dobbs might join Mme Ramotswe as one of my favourite female sleuths.
Set in 1930, the book follows Maisie Dobbs, a brilliant psychologist and investigator as she tries to solve three cases- one that will take her across to France and force her to relive her demons from her own time spent there as a nurse in WW1.
Maisie is a character with great depth and moral integrity and I enjoyed getting to know her. I thought the setting for this book was inspired as it encourages the reader to learn a bit more about those struggling in the aftermath of WW1, Maisie herself included, in parallel with the mysteries being unravelled. She is a detective with a little bit more gumption about her than I expected, believing in psychic phenomena and as another reviewer has commented- this story would translate very well on television. The secondary characters too, were portrayed very well- all in all I'm looking forward to going back to the beginning and getting to know Maisie a little bit better. This book was a terrific mix of crime, intrigue and drama, laced with the repercussions of the aftermath of war. It has a nostalgic feel to it with beautiful descriptions and elegant settings.
Recommended for mystery fans or people looking for a detective story that it just a little bit different from the norm.
This is the first book in a series about Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London in 1929. It's a gentle read that reminded me of the books I read when I was a teenager. Indeed in many ways it feels like a young adult novel. The characters and their motivations are spelled out for us and there are few surprises along the way. It's easy to compare it with the No 1 Ladies Detective series, but it's quite different in feel, lacking the whimsical charm of those books. Nevertheless it's an atmospheric and enjoyable story that's reminiscent of Kate Morton crossed with Agatha Christie.
The plot is partially about Maisie's life story and how she evolved from a domestic maid to a private investigator. It's also the story of her first case, which involves investigating a retreat for WW1 soldiers who are struggling to fit back into society after the war. There's an intriguing mystery but it really only comes to the fore in the final third of the book, once we've dealt with all the back story. The changes in English society and the impact of the first World War are central to the story and make the book very interesting. Maisie carries psychological scars from the War and over the course of the book she will need to acknowledge those.
Maisie uses psychological techniques to solve her cases. For example she frequently mimics people's body language to get an insight into how they are feeling. She also has a "sixth sense" about how things will work out. To be honest, I found this less than convincing. However by the end of the book I was really enjoying the story and I'll definitely pick up more in the series.
on 6 March 2013
Research excellent, settings believable, many characters convincing, plot a bit wild, with unlikely ramifications. (Berlin). Ms Winspear's heroine veers between sensitive ex VAD who lied about her age and intrepid, intelligent investigator whom not much shocks. I believed in her Dad but less in her aristocratic patrons and hardly at all in her tame policeman, though I know the horrible, stupid, jealous and misogynistic sergeant was true to life because I've met some like that among my father's dinosaurian colleagues: he was a good, kind police sergeant, a New Man ahead of his time.) This book suggests that the police of the period missed obvious facts because of their prejudices, a claim I have no difficulty in accepting.
My chief reservation about the book is the language: though there were few historical solecisms, it felt very modern. Ms Winspear is not confident with long, latinate words and sometimes tangles herself in long sentences and yes, before you mutter under your breath, I am a retired English teacher and most people would neither notice not care about the slight weakness of style. I shall try another and hope to like it better.
This, the third novel about Maisie Dobbs, the detective with a difference, holds the attention just as much as the first and second. Maisie, single and alone, has suffered enough. Her wonderful fiance, shellshocked and in an asylum for the rest of his life will never come back to her, and she has a business and reputation to build. She has another skill up her sleeve too - empathy. She knows how people feel, and if they will not tell her what they really want, she will talk it out of them. A gentle detective with a clever way of solving problems - ahead of her time in the 1930's.