Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jacqueline Winspear creates in Maisie Dobbs an inspired detective.


Maisie Dobbs

As the first volume of a now several-volume series, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (294 pages, Penguin, $15) sets up an important back-story of the eponymously named heroine.  Maise was born just before the start of the twentieth century, and she spent her formative years in service.  From the first, however, she showed intelligence and verve; and before long she emerged from the downstairs world to take lessons and eventually inspiration from the local professor, Maurice Blache, who dabbles in detection himself.  He gives Maisie and impressive reading list, which she attacks on top of all her housework. Eventually this earns her admission to Girton College at Cambridge, just before the outbreak of World War I.

This novel actually flashes back to these wartime experiences, but tells us Maisie's story in the present of 1929 as she is setting herself up as a private investigator.  With the help of her sometime assistant, Billy Beale, Maisie attempts to discover the truth behind a wife’s seeming infidelity.  This search, enhanced by Maisie’s astonishing gift for almost visionary inspiration, helped by her facility at mediation and projection, leads her to some hideous mistreatment of veteran soldiers who have emerged from the war maimed and depressed.  As Maisie looks into a supposed retreat for these men, she flashes back to her own wartime experience.

In the war, Maisie volunteered as a nurse, and not long into her service she meets the dashing and delightful Simon, whose own experiences of the war turn out to have shaped her understanding of love and loss.  Without spoiling these rich chapters, I can say that they have a direct bearing on what is happening in the present, and as Maisie struggles to understand one series of events, she finds herself working through some of the implications of the earlier experiences.

Maisie Dobbs is an accomplished and evocative novel.  My guess is that later volumes in this series,  all of which I hope to read, will deal similarly with this period between the wars, often looking back but sometimes looking forward as well.  Maisie Dobbs is a detective to put with the best of them.

Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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