Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, is the inaugural entry in a series of detective novels, now twelve in number, featuring the work of the brilliantly intuitive “Psychologist and investigator” as the 1930s unfold. In the first of the novels, it’s 1929, and Maisie is just setting out to establish her practice independently of her long-time mentor, Maurice Blanche, who has just retired. Maisie Dobbs won the Agatha Award for First Best Novel, and it’s no wonder: the book fits in the crime genre only imperfectly and is entirely unpredictable. Maisie’s fascinating backstory dominates the tale.
The making of a female detective
As the novel opens on the cusp of the Great Depression, we learn that Maisie served as a nurse behind the front lines on the Western Front in World War I. Opening her independent practice, she is drawn into a seemingly simple case to satisfy a wealthy man that his wife has been loyal to him. What she learns while pursuing the case well beyond what her client has required, leads her into a much wider investigation, one fraught with violence. First, however, we learn how Maisie came to be where she is.
Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Maisie is the daughter of a widower who ekes out a living selling vegetables from his cart. They live on the south side of the Thames, the poor side. At the age of thirteen, she is taken into the home of a wealthy aristocratic couple, one of her father’s customers, since her father doesn’t feel able to take adequate care of her. She enters “into service,” beginning a story that at first resembles “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey.” However, Maisie is exceptionally bright and shortly begins to transcend the limitations of her employment. She is a voracious reader and camps out in the mansion’s library at every opportunity. Through her efforts to educate herself she is introduced to Dr. Blanche, who will become, first, her mentor, and then her employer.
Blanche is a uniquely intriguing character who possesses not just a medical degree but an unusually wide range of influential contacts as well as wisdom that is more in tune with today’s sensibilities than with those of the 1910s and 20s. His advice for her, sparingly offered, is often brilliant. “Allow grief room to air itself,” he tells her. “Be judicious in using the body to comfort another, for you may extinguish the freedom that the person feels to be able to share a sadness.” Later, he says “Stay with the question. The more it troubles you, the more it has to teach you.” Then, introduced to an old friend of Dr. Blanche who appears to be a yogi, “she learned to sit in deliberate silence, and learned too that the stilled mind would give insight beyond the teaching of books and hours of instruction, and that such counsel would support all other learning.” More New Age than Roaring Twenties, as I’ve intimated.
Lying about her age and enlisting as a nurse midway through World War I, Maisie eventually makes her way to France, where some of the book’s most revealing, and most dramatic, scenes take place. Few history books convey such a vivid sense of what life on the Western Front was like for the men who fought there, and often lost their lives or their limbs.
This is an exceptional novel that rises above the conventions and expectations of the detective genre. It’s worth reading as historical fiction in its own right.
About the author
A British author who emigrated to the United States in 1990, Jacqueline Winspear is the author of thirteen novels, twelve of them in the Maisie Dobbs series.
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