the Maisie Dobbs series
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels are fresh, intelligent whodunits (or, as one reviewer has called them more precisely, “why-dunits”). Set in England, the books explore the psychological, economic, and political turmoil in the wake of the Great War, as encountered by a sharp-eyed and thoughtful private investigator. To date, the series consists of four books, with a fifth volume scheduled to release in hardcover next February.
The series debut Maisie Dobbs opens in 1929 at a London office where the shingle advertises the services of “M. Dobbs, psychologist and investigator.” In her first solo case since the retirement of her mentor and employer, Maisie is hired by a wealthy husband who suspects his wife of infidelity; but the truth about his wife’s activities takes Maisie back into her own scarred past. We soon learn that after the death of Maisie’s mother, her working-class father arranges for the teenager to go into service to make a better life for herself. When her honorable employers discover her intellectual gifts, they provide a private education with an unusual tutor who trains her in literature, philosophy, psychology, medicine, and meditation practices. She gets into Cambridge but, when England goes to war, lies about her age to go to the frontlines as a nurse. Like thousands of her comrades, she experiences personal tragedy on the French battlefield and returns home from the war injured and bereaved, the circumstances of which are unveiled for the reader along the way as Maisie’s investigation follows the trail of another’s bereavement. The surprisingly dangerous climax of her inquiry establishes her reputation as a strong-minded but competent and compassionate professional.
In the second book, Birds of a Feather, Billy, Maisie’s custodian-turned-legman (and a soldier whose life she once saved), joins in the search for a missing heiress whose disappearance seems to be connected to a recent string of murders. As Maisie studies the relationship between the troubled young woman and her self-made father, she realizes some uncomfortable truths about her increasingly distant relationship with her own father.
In Pardonable Lies, a grieving widower, fulfilling a promise made to his dying wife, petitions Maisie to prove that their son indeed died in battle as they were informed by the government. Following the path of the flyboy’s last-known mission, Maisie returns to France, where she is forced to slay the dragons of her own war-torn past while she helps her client and a college friend do the same.
The latest installment to date, Messenger of Truth, finds Maisie investigating the death of a rising artist whose paintings of the war ignited controversy. As she and Billy dig into the financial and political ties of the artist’s unusual family, they both come face-to-face with tearful crises of their own, and Maisie is forced to consider the motives behind her choices.
Some readers have likened Maisie to Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of Alexander McCall Smith’s entertaining No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Though both characters are intelligent, no-nonsense women detectives, I find the similarities end there; the personal issues each deals with are too divergent and the tone of the respective volumes significantly different, Maisie being darker and more introspective compared to the vibrant and almost sassy Mma Ramotswe. A stronger parallel to Maisie is P.D. James’ private investigator Cordelia Gray, who—to the sorrow of her fans!—stars in only two books (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin). Even then, Maisie defies category, not just because she is a woman doing “a man’s job,” but because she is in all respects a woman ahead of her time.
What makes Maisie different are her methods. She visually records clues and questions with colored pencils on a “case map.” She embraces meditation as a means of clearing her mind and realizing possible subconscious connections. She trusts the hairs on the back of her neck and the aura of a room to help direct her investigation. She is quick to recognize the value of driving her own motorcar and installing a telephone in her office (this is the ’30s, remember). And she doesn’t consider a case solved until all involved parties have begun to move toward some kind of reconciliation.
The descriptive language is wooden at times—with bland phrases like “her dark chestnut hair falling in waves across her shoulders” and often-pedantic reports of Maisie’s wardrobe—but what Winspear occasionally lacks in imaginative expression she makes up for with strong, believable character development and effective plot structure. The layers of personal identity and British history create a convincing world in which this set of characters grows on you with each subsequent book. I found the first one good enough to interest me in the second, was hooked by the end of the second, decided the third one was the best, and then changed my mind about that after I read the fourth. If you’re interested in the world of post-WWI Europe or the historical development of the psychological disciplines, or if you’re generally a fan of British mysteries and/or women detectives, you’ll enjoy this series.
If any Maisie fans are reading this, do leave a comment about why you like these books. Check out author Jacqueline Winspear’s website here. And a public thank you to my sis Sarah for reading these first and knowing me well enough to insist I put them high on the TBR list!