Top critical review
too much clutter?
on 9 May 2014
Where will Jacqueline Winspear go next with Maisie Dobbs? At the end of this novel, she's shutting up shop and heading for India, having solved a pair of murders involving Indian women but also leaving people that she cares about -- especially James Compton and Priscilla's husband, Douglas -- still involved with a sinister Rupert Murdoch-like figure for whom the ends justify the means, even if the means include murder. So it seems fair to say that we'll be hearing from Maisie again, though it's not so clear what a trip to India will enable her to bring back that will help her deal with the outstanding problems any better than the skills she already possesses. There's a hint that a spiritual dimension in Maisie's make-up will be heightened (one of the murdered women is represented as almost a kind of angelic force), and readers will remember that Maisie's psychological intuitions and her general rejection of mind-body dualism have been part of an aura that Winspear has created for her from the start, poised at times uneasily between serious spirituality and old-fashioned spiritualism (remember the earlier gypsy stuff too).
And there's also a feminist foregrounding -- Maisie herself, her assistant, the widowed Sandra, and one of the murdered Indian women are all seen as breaking boundaries, and to a degree more explicit than in the earlier novels (where concerns for Maisie's safety are usually voiced by James), here the sense of strong women as putting themselves in danger is more palpable. Sandra is turned into a feminist in this novel -- night classes will do that to you -- and Maisie doesn't disapprove in principle. And although the erotic dimension of Maisie's nature is always played down in the novels, she is beginning to emerge as a kind of serial polygamist -- she has "loved" the young doctor who was wounded in France, another doctor Andrew Dene, and now she seems to be easing James out of her life. It's not clear what's going on here, and the idea that Maisie, because of her wartime experiences, has in some sense not yet "found herself" isn't persuasive: she's too competent and intelligent for that to be credible.
All of these issues -- in addition to racism, Maisie's father's romantic life, and yet another breakdown by Billy Beale, her first assistant -- get in the way of the clear and efficient handling of a plot here, and the coincidental connection between a case that Billy is working on (about a runaway child) and the case of the murdered Indian woman is perhaps just too neat -- and that how somehow events of 20 years earlier (yes, the war again) are used to tie them together seems a stretch. The ending seems clumsily handled (a dog plays a significant part), and it's difficult not to believe that the murder investigation could not have been wrapped up much earlier and more routinely. The delaying tactics, though, allow Winspear to get all her other issues on the table, even if they're not all that well integrated. Also unfortunate, because anti-climactic, are the chapters following the solving of the murder -- too much talk, too much pseudo-reflection (none of it new), and too much tying together what can be tied.
I thought Winspear's previous novel, "Elegy for Eddie," was a good, tight piece of work. This novel has intriguing elements, but it's a bit too loose and baggy.