2.01.2015

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | MAISIE DOBBS - JACQUELINE WINSPEAR


Maisie Dobbs isn’t just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a nurse. It is there that she learns that coincidences are meaningful and the truth elusive. After the War, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind. - Goodreads

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Maisie Dobbs is a new breed of literary detective. Smart, fearless and incredibly observant, she is one of those characters who seems simultaneously impervious and vulnerable. I enjoyed the premise - she's a trained psychologist who profiles her suspects and witnesses and expertly teases the information she needs out of them. Set between the two world wars in England, I also enjoy the setting and flawlessly evocative historical context.
This is the first book in the wildly successful Maisie Dobbs series, which is up to ten books and counting. In her first adventure, Dobbs has recently completed her education and taken over her mentor's business working as a private detective/psychologies (basically a criminal profiler). But, as we've established, she's more than your typical investigator. For one thing, she doesn't just discover and hand off information to her clients, she insists on working with them to resolve whatever situation brought them to her in the first place. She'll even help them figure out what they really want - which often isn't what they thought they were after.

Part mystery and part background, the first Dobbs book introduces us to our main character (the middle section of the book takes us through her childhood, early days at Cambridge and subsequent deferment to become a nurse on the WWI battlefields) and wraps up a puzzling set of suspicious circumstances involving the untimely deaths of several soldiers who had been drastically injured during the war. Upon further investigation, Maisie discovers that they all had one thing in common (I can't tell you what it is though - you'll have to read the book to find out!).

The best part of this book for me was the flawless evocation of both the time period and the setting. It came to life on the page, and I felt like I had stepped through a portal into post-WWI London. Likewise, Winspear's characters were well-developed, likeable and realistic.

There were only a couple of things that didn't quite work for me. The first is the new-agey way Maisie's abilities are described here and there. She does this thing where she imitates the posture and behaviour of a subject and can "feel" what they're feeling and sense what's going on in their heads. Some serious eye-rolling ensued. Profile them by watching carefully, sure, but this is going a bit far:
"[...] in mirroring his posture, she knew of his inner confusion, his torment, and his pain. And in looking into his eyes, she knew that he was mad." 
There's also some talk of "auras" and "primordial healing resources." Not really my thing, but luckily these passages are occasional, so they don't overshadow the plot too much.

The other thing that was a little bit challenging for me was that the book starts off in Maisie's present day (1929), and for the first 60 pages or so, ramps up into a mystery. But just as you're getting into it, the story cuts to Maisie's personal history and proceeds to spend the next 130 pages telling the story of Maisie's life. It's interesting, and absolutely necessary to the story, but by the time we cut back to the present day I'd lost some of the details of the plot and had to flip back to the beginning. I also found myself struggling a bit to get through that 130 pages because it was a lot to read before getting on with the plot I'd bought into at the beginning of the book. I think it might have worked better to start with the Maisie story with just a short intro, then to dive into the background of the character - or even to alternate between the two in short bursts.

Despite these minor issues, however, I enjoyed the story. The idea behind Maisie is a great one, and I am looking forward to reading the next book which will hopefully stick in one time-period and downplay any new-agey references to auras!

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Book Title: Maisie Dobbs
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Series: Maisie Dobbs #1
Edition: Paperback
Published By: Penguin Books
Released: 2003
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller, Historical Fiction
Pages: 310
Date Read: December 21-29, 2014
Rating: 7/10

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