Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Highly-Recommended Historical Mystery Series

Although this spring has been crazy-busy with family and work, I have made time for my most important self-care: reading. And have I ever found an incredible mystery series to share with you!! Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series is simply brilliant. (The "Maisie Dobbs" link sends you to Goodreads' complete list of the books in this series.) Set in the years between the World Wars, Maisie is an unusual young woman with brains and talent who was blessed with a university education despite being the daughter of a London costermonger.

The first book in the series is all background: how Maisie Dobbs becomes Maisie Dobbs, including her childhood, her time in service, her training, her time at university, her service as a nurse during the Great War, the rest of her time at university, her training under Dr. Maurice Blanche, to her finally opening her own investigative service. Currently, there are fifteen books in the series, and I have worked my way through the first nine thus far, and all are brilliant with deep character studies (with many characters becoming regulars as the series continues).

Yet the mysteries themselves are rather slow burns, reminding me greatly of the pacing and development of Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey mysteries. I really want to purchase each one and re-read them several times. The books are available both as print and e-books through the San Diego County Library system and are likely to be available via most library systems as well as through Amazon/Kindle.

So here are my reviews of the first three books of this series (I was going to give you six reviews, but then I discovered how LONG these reviews are!):

Maisie DobbsMaisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This first book in the Maisie Dobbs series is less about solving mysteries and more about Maisie's life: her childhood, going into service, her education, and the Great War which reverberates for decades afterward. This book provides a compelling and memorable backdrop to the series which is beautifully written, character-driven, and simply amazing. For fans of British "whodunnits," this series is NOT TO BE MISSED!!

Maisie is a remarkable character, one who succeeds brilliantly in her professional life but who stumbles frequently in her private life, especially in romance. One of the major reasons for her loneliness stems from events described in this first book. I found it fascinating to watch Maisie grow from a young girl to a professional woman over the scope of this first novel.

Ms. Winspear causes us to dig deeply and thus care deeply for the characters in this series, and we readers learn to care for Maisie Dobbs most of all, cheering her on in her successes and mourning her many losses. She is a flawed character (in this she also reminds me greatly of Sayers' Peter Wimsey, also scarred by the Great War), yet her balance of intelligence and compassion drives her to pursue each case to its (often slightly bitter) end (again, much like Peter Wimsey). 

Originally I read this book via Kindle Unlimited, but now I have purchased my own copy so that I can go back over the details of Maisie's life as needed. I am now reading well into the series and am very glad that I have a copy of this first book at hand to in order to revisit certain scenes.

Birds of a Feather Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this second novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, we actually find Maisie embarking upon her first case: a missing heiress. It's now 1930, over a decade since the Great War devastated Europe, including England as well as Maisie's past and, in a way, her future.

While the first book of the series provided us with Maisie's voluminous and fascinating backstory, we get to see Maisie at work now, employing all that she has gleaned during her training by Dr. Maurice Blanche who has become like another father to Maisie. So now that Maurice has retired, Maisie "puts up her shingle" and takes her first case.

In these novels, it's not so much the "whodunnit?" as it is the "why did they do it?" Maisie is not merely an investigator; she is also a trained psychologist, again thanks to Maurice. She has learned his methods of quieting her mind, of putting herself almost literally into others' "shoes" by mimicking their posture, movement, and even their walk. Often Maisie gets a fairly clear idea of the "who," but until she has clearly settled the "whys," she is never satisfied.

In this book, we are also introduced to Billy Beale, a wounded veteran of the Great War (has a "game leg" and damaged lungs from mustard gas) who eventually becomes her assistant just as she was Maurice's. The lovely part for Maisie is that Maurice is nearby, having purchased the Dower House at the Comptons' estate in Kent. Lady Rowan and Lord Julian, for whom Maisie had been a maid starting when she was twelve, continue to support Maisie by insisting that she stay in their London townhouse as they live mostly in Kent at this time. And Maisie's father, a costermonger by trade but a horse expert at heart, remains the head of the Comptons' stables and lives in a cottage near the Dower House.

Thus, Maisie often drives her MG (which she purchased from Lady Rowan) to Kent in order to visit her father, keep Maurice apprised of her cases (and he is happy to point her in a particular direction), and visit with Lady Rowan. From time to time, Maisie also calls upon Lord Julian because of his connections during the war may help with her cases.

I find the way in which Maisie's mind works fascinating. The way in which she and Billy create a "case map" on the back of old wallpaper in order to track all of the various threads is brilliant (as Maurice trained her, of course), and her frequent run-ins with Detective Inspector Richard Stratton, a widower with a young son, is also intriguing.

I'm rather reviewing all nine of the books I've read here--they've all bled together in my mind after I galloped through them without making notes or writing reviews this spring as there simply wasn't time. But I adore Maisie Dobbs, and right now I'm on the waitlist for the tenth of fifteen books in this series.

Pardonable Lies Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third novel of the Maisie Dobbs series finds Maisie searching for the truth of an airman's death during the Great War, eleven years after the Armistice. Maurice is concerned about Maisie returning to France to discover the precise events of the airman's death, especially as it seems that one of her best friend's brothers (Priscilla lost all three of her brothers in the war) may also be involved. Maurice knows that Maisie still bears scars from her wartime service as a nurse, especially the bombing of the aid station near the Front where she worked alongside her fiance-in-all-but-name, Dr. Simon Lynch. Together, they had treated Billy Beale who becomes Maisie's assistant, Simon miraculously saving Billy's leg when almost any other surgeon would have given up or failed.

Many secrets are revealed during this time in Maisie's life, including how deeply involved Maurice was in the war effort--namely, in espionage. Maisie unearths much about the death of Priscilla's brother and his involvement in the war and with a young French girl. But following this line of inquiry is extremely taxing for Maisie who has buried so much of the horror of the war deep within her psyche.

She continues to avoid visiting Simon, who survived the war but lost his mind in the attack that nearly killed both him and Maisie. Unable to speak, to recognize, to feed or dress himself, Simon remains in a wheelchair, eyes unfixed on anything, lost in time and space. Maisie forces herself to see him, but each visit is heartbreaking for her.

So Maisie methodically uncovers the truth of the airman's death, also unearthing the truth of Priscilla's brother's death, his legacy, and Maisie's own fragility is also revealed. For her, as for many, many others, the Great War may never cease. A brilliant study in PTSD, the psychology of wartime, the scars left by this first of the world wars, the machinations of governments, and the secret loves that burgeoned during global upheaval.

* * * * *

So I hope I haven't given too awfully much away in my reviews of this series. I have read and reviews the seventh, eighth, and ninth books in this series as well as I await the tenth from the library. While I wait, I am reading the latest Gaslight Mystery by Victoria Thompson, and as I started reading it, I realized that I had somehow missed a couple of books preceding the last few of this series, so I'm going back to re-read the one before the two I missed, then I'll read those two. I've checked out all three e-books from the library. So I can now wait without too much angst for the tenth Maisie mystery with these lovely turn-of-the-century New York mysteries to keep me company.

Reading avidly,

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