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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
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 March 2006
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 11 March 2006
With its Art Deco type front and the word mystery liberally splattered across the jacket, I expected this to be a rival to the Poirot series. In that respect, I was mightily disappointed - the mystery (such as it is) is only evident at the beginning and the end of the book.
However, I thoroughly enjoyed the middle portion, with its vivid detail and descriptions of Maisie's early years. Particularly evocative were the passages on the Great War and its long lasting effects on those who returned.
A slight annoyance was the cockernee chirpiness of some of the characters, who were a bit too Dick Van Dyke-ish for me. However, that alone would not put me off buying the next in the series.
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on 16 January 2015
Too many huge holes in the plot, Americanisms( envision, etc) and gross errors....the Times didn't have news on its front page until the sixties, and even an ex- Brit, now living in America could have checked her facts! I am sure she works with a map of London and an Underground map by her side, as sometimes Whinspear batters her readers over the head relating the routes her characters take. The stories are good enough, but easy reading and undemanding.
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on 11 March 2006
With its Art Deco type front and the word mystery liberally splattered across the jacket, I expected this to be a rival to the Poirot series. In that respect, I was mightily disappointed - the mystery (such as it is) is only evident at the beginning and the end of the book.
However, I thoroughly enjoyed the middle portion, with its vivid detail and descriptions of Maisie's early years. Particularly evocative were the passages on the Great War and its long lasting effects on those who returned.
A slight annoyance was the cockernee chirpiness of some of the characters, who were a bet to Dick Van Dyke-ish for me. However, that alone would not put me off buying the next in the series.
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on 18 November 2016
First in the Maisie Dobbs series and I will be reading more. Some very moving scenes painted by Jacqueline Winspear in a very good crime and mystery novel; really enjoyable even if Maisie does rely a bit on other people.
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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.
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