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on 24 April 2014
I enjoy the Maisie Dobbs books, but they are quite odd. The post-World War 1 novels of Rennie Airth, for example, give a much more frightening sense of the damage that war can do, and they generate a psychological intensity that Winspear shies away from, and their resolutions are gripping scenes of action. Both Airth and Winspear are concerned to present the world between the wars as a time of fragility, but the sense of threat is much more palpable in Airth's books. In this novel, the shying away from intensity is present too in the domestic passages; Maisie is now sleeping with James Compton, but there is absolutely no sexual energy AT ALL in the novel, and this absence of erotic liberation cuts against the book's ostensible theme of the capacity of women to work effectively in a world still largely dominated by men. There are four strong women in this novel -- Maisie herself, Francesca Thomas,her colleague at College of St Francis, the College Secretary Rosemary Linden, and Maisie's office helper Sandra, now a widow determined to find out the truth behind her husband's death. Rosemary and Sandra, in their different ways, generate some intensity, but Maisie's job seems to be always to be cooling things down -- and that doesn't augur well, long term, for her relationship with James Compton.
Without giving too much away, the story has Maisie agreeing to work for the Secret Service by taking a job teaching introductory Philosophy in Cambridge at the College of St Francis, whose head and founder, Greville Liddicote has established it to further peace in the world following the horrors of World War 1. Hitler is beginning to make noise in Germany, and he has sympathizers in Britain, but (Maisie discovers) he is not taken seriously -- except by Maisie and Francesca, those prescient women! Then Liddicote is murdered, Scotland Yard appears on the scene, and Maisie, though told to keep out of the way of Inspectors McFarlane and Stratton by her Secret Service handler, manages to solve their case, while still being able to make her report to the Secret Service, AND solve problems that Sandra gets into as she seeks the truth about her husband. It's a weakness of the plotting, though, that Maisie manages to resolve the questions of the murder and Sandra's danger not really by sleuthing but by happenstance -- being in the right place at the right time. There is some effective detective work -- the finding of Rosemary Linden, for example -- but it is followed by a lot of exposition that means that Maisie doesn't have to figure things out. Likewise with Francesca Thomas -- there comes a point where she just explains it all. Is it a quality of Maisie's character that makes people explain things to her? or is it a plot convenience that Winspear can't find any other way around?
The real charm of the book is in its rather detached aestheticizing of its "world" -- a kind of aestheticizing that invites a nostalgia for that world, which, one has to say, was far more dangerous and difficult than the books show. The political and economic challenges are alluded to, but they are not rendered convincingly. So all in all, the world as the books present it, is the kind of world in which a sensitive and intelligent woman like Maisie can thrive. That is sentimental and as a result the books belong to the genre of polite romance rather than "thriller." The idea of romance fits too with the treatment of class in the novel, which is a bit odd. James's class difference from Maisie just doesn't register on her consciousness, while her assistants Billy and Sandra treat Maisie as a higher class of being -- even though Maisie's origins are as humble as theirs. I think we're meant to believe that education dissolved these differences, perhaps along with the horror of the war which tends to make one think of common humanity rather than social classes. And maybe it does for some -- but c. 1930, when this book is set, class difference in fact did matter and education had not yet worked its dissolving power. All of which is to say that the grasp of the period is a bit shaky for all the "period detail" of clothes and transportation. For all that, Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher, apparently loves the Maisie Dobbs books -- but looked at in one way, there's something sentimental about Child's plots too. Justice is done, loose ends are tied up, and history is largely ignored, though there is a bit more sex and violence on the journey.