Thursday, January 31, 2013

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

What many of my generation remember learning about the first World War could be summed up as –

1. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand helped to touch it off.
2. It occurred, roughly, during 1914 to 1918
3. Snoopy was a World War 1 flying ace who flew a Sopwith Camel biplane.

Okay, I didn’t know it was a Sopwith Camel until I looked it up.

I find myself of two minds about the Maisie Dobbs series.  There are many things to enjoy, but there are aspects that bothered me.  I would be reading along and suddenly something would happen that would throw me out of the story in consternation.

Let’s start with the historical context which is, I think, the strongest part of this book. 

Winspear’s paternal grandfather came back from WWI shell shocked, which might be referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today, and with serious leg wounds.  She said in one interview that he was removing shrapnel from his legs for the rest of his life.  His lungs were also damaged by gas.  Her maternal grandmother was a munitions worker in an arsenal, where she was partially blinded in an explosion that killed several of the girls she worked with. 

This is a topic which Winspear is deeply attached to and her writing shares her fascination with us.  It has led her to write 9 novels with the 10th on the way in March of this year.  

Now, who is Maisie Dobbs?  Maisie is, in some ways, an orphan because she lost her mother at a young age and then her father sent her into service, admittedly for her own good.  She is highly intelligent and even attended Girton College (Cambridge)  though women were not allowed to actually receive degrees at that time.  She is a former nurse, during WWI.  She is a private inquiry agent and a psychologist.  She is also a bit psychic, which some people may be able to enjoy but it really bothered me when it cropped up.

The first novel, Maisie Dobbs, takes us along as Maisie opens her own office for the first time, and she meets Billy Beale, a handyman who ends up helping her with her office and eventually cases.  He remembers her as the nurse at the casualty clearing station in France during the war 12 years before, who helped calm him while the doctor saved his leg and his gratitude is heartfelt.  As he continually tells her, “You need anything done, Miss, Billy Beale’s your man.”

I have read the complaint that at times, it seems as if there is too much detail in the accounts, every movement and every bit of clothing described.  I have felt that way myself, but as we see, that is the way Maisie was trained by her mentor, Maurice Blanche, to investigate. 

“During her apprenticeship with him, he had been insistent that nothing was to be left to memory, no stone to remain unturned, and no small observation uncataloged.  Everything, absolutely everything, right down to the color of the shoes the subject wore on the day in question, must be noted.  The weather must be described, the direction of the wind, the flowers in bloom, the food eaten.  Everything must be described and preserved.”

Maisie’s first case independent of her mentor and former employer, Maurice Blanche, arrives in the form of Christopher Davenham.  Davenham is concerned that his wife is having an affair. 

Maisie agrees to look into the situation, on the provision that when she presents her findings, they will discuss it.  She feels a responsibility for what the ramifications of any information she uncovers will have on the couple.  It is here we must remember that Maisie is not only a private enquiry agent, but also a psychologist.

Maisie sets out to follow the young wife, Celia. 

“Maisie copied the woman’s posture as she walked, and immediately felt her stomach clutch and a shiver go through her.  Then sadness descended, like a dark veil across her eyes.  Maisie knew that Celia Davenham was weeping as she walked, and that in her sadness she was searching for strength.”

I confess, this is a bit much for me.  I think that there is a lot to be said for observing someone’s posture, and even copying it might help a detective think about what state of mind or body would put someone in that posture, but this takes it a step beyond empathy or intuition, to have her “stomach clutch and a shiver” run through her.

You can hold a belief, you may even be correct, but the only way to know what a person is thinking and feeling is to ask them and then trust that they are telling you the truth and that they know their own mind.  Anything else is conjecture.  Just once I’d like Maisie to find out she’s wrong.  But of course, Maisie is nearly always right.

Maisie follows Celia to a cemetery in the town of Nether Green, where she places flowers and weeps over a grave with asingle name, Vincent, engraved on the headstone.

As Maisie learns more about Vincent and how he died, she pursues her own interest in his death.  Coincidentally, it seems James, the son of Lady Rowan and Lord Compton, is thinking about moving to The Retreat.

The book now shifts back in time to the Spring of 1910 and moves forward from there for 135 of the 295 pages of the book. It's rather unusual but, to my mind, the best part of the book.  She covers a great deal of time in those pages, ending in the Spring of 1917.

We are given a full look at Maisie's service ala the PBS series Upstairs Downstairs.

Maisie gets to visit her father on Sundays, her day off. On Wednesday's she is sent to the public library to get books for the cook and butler, as well as herself, but Maisie becomes fascinated by the books in the library at the house.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Lady Rowan catches Maisie in the library reading early one morning after a late party. Maisie fears she is going to lose her job but Lady Rowan has other ideas.

Lady Rowan proposes to have Maurice Blanche tutor Maisie (though much of her studying will have to be self-directed, as she already has been.)

Eventually, Maisie is off to college and getting settled in her rooms when we are introduced to one of my favorite characters, who will become a friend of Maisie’s for years to come (throughout the series.)

“Suddenly the loud crash of a door swinging back on its hinges, followed by the double thump of two large leather suitcases landing one after the other on the floor of the room next door, heralded the arrival of her neighbor.  Amplified by the empty corridor, she heard a deep sigh followed by the sound of a foot kicking one of the cases… Maisie heard footsteps coming toward her room.  A fashionably dressed girl with dark chestnut hair stood in front of her, and held out her finely manicured hand.  “Priscilla Evernden.  Delighted to meet you – Maisie Dobss, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”

Priscilla eventually takes off to drive an ambulance in the war effort and Maisie decides to enlist for nursing service.

She is quickly sent to France and her experiences in training, travel, her post in a clearing station for wounded, and being courted by a doctor are all depicted sensitively and painfully at times.  

Then we are back in 1929, and to the mystery, delving right in with an explanation of how James is suffering from his war wounds and considering moving to The Retreat. 

It’s a bit of a long out take and while very enjoyable, has completely departed from the flow of inquiry in a mystery.  It’s like we’ve had a book within a book.  Frankly, the stronger of the two books for me.

I will say that the ending works for some but not for others.  Suffice it to say, it involves singing.

Maisie does bother me as a character a bit.  The character was created as a little too nice, a little too earnest – her only flaws come from her trying too hard and being too good.  I think this does get better in subsequent books but I have the feeling the author had trouble letting her character falter.

Is this a novel or a mystery?  If it is a mystery series, are they cozy or detective fiction?  What is the difference? 

I would say the first book is more a novel than a mystery.  Subsequent books provide the reader with a more strongly plotted mystery.

You would think these books would be detective fiction since the main protagonist is a private investigator but the clues are not all laid out for the reader.  There are too many leaps in the process that are put down to Maisie doing things in the background that the reader isn’t privy to or letting her make leaps in deduction based on information she learned in her past that we don’t have.  Simply too many coincidences and intuitions.  It falls much better into the “cozy” category, which generally means minimal references to sex, violence, foul language, drug usage, etc.

In summary, the Upstairs Downstairs type atmosphere is interesting and the author is at her best when writing eloquently about what people suffered during and because of “The Great War.” 

The mystery does get stronger in subsequent books, but it’s never the strongest part of the book. 

Read Maisie Dobbs for the history, the relationships and the light, cozy mystery.

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