Review: Maisie Dobbs 1-3


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.


Other thoughts:

Ana on Maisie Dobbs

Review: After the Armistice Ball

After the Armistice Ball was a gift from my mom, who thought it looked like something I might enjoy. Obviously the judging a book by its cover thing runs in the family 🙂 But I love that she took a chance and she loves that she was right for once. And that means I’ve got another series of cosy mysteries, perfect since winter isn’t too far off.

After the Armistice Ball is Catriona McPherson’s first book in a murder mystery series, set in Scotland after WWI. Dandy Gilver, the heroine of this mystery, is bored with her life. Her volunteer uniform is growing musty in the attic, her two sons are away at school and her husband has rather become an afterthought to her. So when her friend Daisy asks her to look into the disappearance of the Duffy diamonds, Dandy jumps at the chance of adventure and earning some of her own money. But taking a closer look at the Duffy family, sweet soon-to-be married Cara, cold Clemence, their dominant mother Lena, and quiet father Gregory, Dandy soon finds herself uncovering the secret of a death at the family’s cottage with Cara’s fiance Alec.

What I found refreshingly different about this mystery is that the amateur sleuth Dandy really is an amateur, and not a detective genius in disguise. For most of the time, Dandy really doesn’t have a clue whodunit, and she and Alec talk at length about who could have done what and every time they exchanged their theories, I was more confused than before. I guess their talks are another kind of red herring. The mystery is quite good and suspenseful but it is Dandy who makes this book so appealing. While she bumbles along trying to solve this mystery and finding her place as a sleuth, Dandy narrates her adventures with a dry wit and never takes herself too seriously, but she also has a real interest in the other characters. The combination of middle-aged Dandy and the younger Alec also works well, and I’m looking forward to their next adventure. Much of the comic relief is provided by Dandy’s interactions with her maid, Grant. Grant comes from a theatrical family and her “face-painting still tends toward the dramatic”. I also loved the way that Dandy’s interactions with her family was written. For example, going on a picnic with her sons, she is told: “‘You look dreadful, Mother,’ he said, reminding me very much that he was his father’s son.” My experience with children isn’t that great, but I find this much more realistic than many other representations I’ve encountered. Dandy’s marriage, too, is interestingly written. Her husband Hugh is more interested in the estate, fishing and the like, than having an active social life outside of his home with his wife. And Dandy finds that after a while, husbands seem to fade into the background. Not much relieve from boredom there, and Dandy repeatedly states that she isn’t very sensitive or maternal, but in her friendship with Alec, Dandy finds someone lively and interesting and their banter is great fun.

McPherson also seems to have researched the twenties quite thoroughly, although I’m no expert. After the freedom for women in WWI, Dandy is now bored with domestic life, and by helping her friend Daisy, she not only sees a chance of adventure but also for earning some money. The years after WWI affected the wealthy landowners and the gentry, and the resulting changes in their financial situation are mentioned in this book. The description of the manners of the twenties, the fashion and the language convinced me, and I had a great time with bumbling but charming Dandy.  Even if you’re not usually drawn to mysteries, give After the Armistice Ball a try.

The Dandy Gilver series now comprises five books, and there’s a website with more information.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!