Maisie Dobbs is the first book in a series of mysteries set in England in the 1920s/30s. Its title heroine is an investigator and psychologist, just setting up a business of her own after the retirement of her mentor. Maisie’s first case is the supposed infidelity of a wife, but of course there soon turns out to be much more to it. This is very much the first book in a series and is mostly there to establish Maisie’s investigative approach and to give her back story. The mystery is not terribly well-constructed but my problem was mostly with Maisie as a character. I read this book in June and never thought then that I would voluntarily read more of the series. Maisie, as we learn from the flashback to her early years, is from a humble background and used to be a servant in the household of Lady Rowan Compton. This lady becomes Maisie’s patroness and her friend Maurice Blanche becomes a sort of mentor. Maisie is unbelievably intelligent, hard-working, good-looking, and loved by everyone she meets (except for the reader that is, I was beginning to hate her guts at that point). A third of this book is devoted the exceptional Miss Dobbs and her Hollywood-meets-Dickens story. Also, Maisie’s detecting involves a lot of esoteric psycho stuff that I’m not very comfortable with. She imitates people’s body postures to find out what they are feeling and thinking. And she feels the spirit of people in their abandoned rooms. Ugh! So neither the mystery nor the main character did much for me but what I did enjoy was Winspear’s description of the long-lasting effects of WWI, the trauma of the soldiers and their families and how those who were affected the worst were often shunned by a society that felt guilty but also wanted to move on.
After all my complaining about Maisie Dobbs, are you surprised that I went and read the second book? I was! Book 1 left me feeling very unsatisfied, I felt that there was a lot of potential that hadn’t been realised in the first part of the series. And I’m glad that I gave the series another try, for I enjoyed Birds of a Feather a lot. Maisie has come into her own, her business is successful and since book 1 has established how brilliant and wonderful she is, Winspear doesn’t seem to feel the need to harp on about Maisie’s qualities. The mystery is sound and interesting, though it’s not too difficult to guess who did it. Still, this book is a good example of the cosy British mystery that I enjoy, but it’s in the period description that this novel really shines. I found the references to the white feather campaign especially interesting, I had no idea that some women distributed white feathers to men to get men to sign up in WWI (the white feather was a symbol of cowardice). Times like these remind me how fantastic access to academic databases is!
Since I enjoyed book 2 so much, I quickly moved on to book three, Pardonable Lies (I guess Maisie is growing on me after all). The third installment is interesting as Maisie’s trauma finally catches up with her when she returns to France. Winspear handles Maisie’s trauma very well and I think it helps make Maisie more human, I know I connected better with her in this book. Winspear’s descriptions of England and France in the 30s are very well done and reading about people still recovering from one war makes it all the more devastating to know about the second one which is already looming (I find that one of the most difficult things in reading literature from the 20s and 30s, reading about the devastation and exhaustion and trauma of the survivors, but knowing what is still to come).
I’m still a bit bothered by Maisie’s esoteric approach to investigations, but either I’ve gotten used to it, or Winspear has toned it down a bit. Either way, I’m glad I kept going with this series. If you enjoy classic mysteries or are interested in the 20s and 30s, you should give Maisie a chance.