‘Maisie Dobbs’ by Jacqueline Winspear – an excellent start to a promising series.

Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, began her working life at the age of thirteen as a servant in a Belgravia mansion, only to be discovered reading in the library by her employer, Lady Rowan Compton. Fearing dismissal, Maisie is shocked when she discovers that her thirst for education is to be supported by Lady Rowan and a family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche. But The Great War intervenes in Maisie’s plans, and soon after commencement of her studies at Girton College, Cambridge, Maisie enlists for nursing service overseas.

Years later, in 1929, having apprenticed to the renowned Maurice Blanche, a man revered for his work with Scotland Yard, Maisie sets up her own business. Her first assignment, a seemingly tedious inquiry involving a case of suspected infidelity, takes her not only on the trail of a killer, but back to the war she had tried so hard to forget.

‘Maisie Dobbs’ turned out to be a piece of historical fiction which confronted the realities that faced the generation of men and women who suffered through the slaughter of World War I and had to live with its consequences. It engaged my emotions, increased my empathy for that doomed generation and made me recalibrate my picture of Britain in 1929 to take into account the grief, trauma and disappointment that so many people were living with.

Maisie Dobbs is a Private Investigator so, of course, the book is structured around her investigation into the deaths of wounded ex-servicemen, but Winspear hasn’t written a pastiche of the early Christie stories. Dobbs isn’t an egotistical puzzle solver, using her amazing powers of observation to find a murderer. Winspear doesn’t set out to entertain the reader by engaging them in a game of ‘Can you spot the red herring? Instead, she’s using the structure of a detective story to engage the reader in the issues faced by English people a hundred years ago. Dobbs is an investigator but she is also a psychologist and her broad aim is not just to solve a mystery but to bring some resolution and perhaps healing to the people affected by the mystery.

The structure of the book is unusual. It starts with Maisie Dobbs opening her new Private Investigations agency in London in 1929 and shows the reader how she works and how she lives, letting us see the independent, quietly confident woman that Maisie Dobbs has become. Then the narrative breaks and we meet Maisie at fourteen, entering domestic service in the household of Lady Rowan Compton. Against the current fashion of intercut dual timelines, this book takes a different path and we follow Maisie through to adulthood, including her service as a nurse in France during the First World War, before returning to 1929. I enjoyed getting to stay in one timeline for long enough to settle in and get to know the characters rather than swapping between to amp up the suspense. It kept my attention on the people rather than the mystery and it gave the mystery a solid context.

Maisie’s story pressed a lot of Class buttons for me and pulled to the surface a lot of my anger at how the world was organised back then and how we seem to be being pushed back to those structures today.

Maisie is the daughter of a widowed costermonger and enters domestic service in a wealthy, socially prominent household as a way of making ends meet. The mistress of the house, Lady Rowan Compton, realises how bright Maisie is and takes her on as a project and ultimately sponsors her education and helps her set up her own business. I found myself conflicted as I watched Maisie’s education. I concede that it’s better to see a bright mind fed than starved and I accept that her sponsors are well-intentioned but it all spoke to me of the way the upper classes unthinkingly assimilate the brightest as if they were a lost ‘one of us‘ which annoys me because it supports the idea that upper class are ‘upper’ by merit rather than by privilege granted by ruthless grasping ancestors. I accept that Lady Rowan Compton is trying her best to make use of her privilege but that doesn’t help me set aside my resentment at her being privileged in the first place.

Then we reached 1914 and watched the young men sign up to go to war. We hadn’t even reached the slaughter and maiming of the battlefield yet and already, the measured, not quite dispassionate, storytelling was triggering my anger and sadness. I cannot forgive the English ruling class for what they did in World War I. Slaughtering a generation of men and destroying millions of families should have been the end of them, but they’re still here.

For me, the most powerful section of the book took place in a battlefield hospital in France in 1917. It was deeply sad and affecting. Winspear managed to show the horrific waste of the war on a very human level, made all the more powerful for not splattering the screen of my imagination with blood. The pain and the suffering were overwhelming without being in any way sensationalised or romanticised. It wasn’t a backdrop for a romance or a mystery. It was simply showing that who Maisie Dobbs is in 1929 and what she is trying to do, can only be understood in the context of the misery and loss and waste that she and the people around her lived through.

I was particularly struck by this line about the impact of the war:

“…they had all of them on both sides, lost their freedom. The freedom to think hopefully of the future.”

That’s a sense of loss that I can identify with.

When we returned to 1929 and watched Maisie solve the mystery of the wounded ex-servicemen who died while staying at a place of refuge and had only their first names on their gravestones, I realised that the real story was about recognising that, for those who fought in it and survived, the war didn’t end in 1918 and that its consequences needed to be confronted and treated with compassion.

I thought ?Maisie Dobbs’ was an excellent start to an historical fiction series. I’m not at all surprised to find that this book won awards and that the series currently stands at seventeen novels. I’m looking forward to reading them,

Jacqueline Winspear is a British-born writer who emigrated to the United States in 1990 where she became a writer while working in business and as a personal / professional coach.

She is best known for her Maisied Dobbs series of period detective stories. The first book, Maisie Dobbs, was published in 2003. The series currently stands at seventeen novels

One thought on “‘Maisie Dobbs’ by Jacqueline Winspear – an excellent start to a promising series.

  1. There was that “psychologist, heal thyself” moment at the end that I choked on, and the fatal accident (based on a true incident, I know, but fictionalized in such a way that a couple separated by class could never unite)…I decided not to read the rest.


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