Book: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (2003)
It’s a cozy, or is it? A mystery novel that sidesteps blood and merciless beatings for a more measured and intellectual approach to solving crimes is called a cozy. Maisie Dobbs, the first in a series of (so far) seven novels written by Jacqueline Winspear, introduces us to the English woman whose business placard reads “psychologist and investigator.” Cozies generally feature women, but their content may not be quite as fraught with meaning as Maisie Dobbs.
Maisie tracks a criminal, but the leisurely pursuit occupies less than half of a fairly short book. The rest provides us with most of Maisie’s unconventional life story. Winspear recreates the time preceding, during and after World War I and the effect that horrors of that war had on a whole generation.
The fledgling investigator sets up her office in 1929 London with the help of a wealthy woman she used to work for as a maid. When a man asks Maisie to find out if his wife is cheating on him, she uncovers a scheme to take advantage of wounded veterans. Working on discovering the truth draws her back through a lengthy flashback to her own growth from household servant to the grueling work as a battlefield nurse in France during the war. Winspear skillfully introduces the upstairs-downstairs world of Ladies and their servants and then the realities of World War I.In fact, all of her books are set in the period of the Great War, and in this first book, she acknowledges the stories of her Grandfather for setting her on that path.
With the exception of a bit of suspenseful action toward the end, the pace is slow and deliberate…fitting Maisie’s training by her mentor Maurice Blanc. Some of his teachings–which always come to mind when she needs them, include meditation, although it is not called that. She also practices body mirroring to feel through another’s stance what they are feeling, and trusts her instincts along with logic.
The most unusual characteristic of Maisie in comparison to other sleuths you have known is her insistence that she has a duty to make people better–to help them heal. Most fictional detectives have a deep understanding of human nature, but most are more focused on punishment and revenge than on healing. And certainly the detectives we have talked about here at A Traveler’s Library view the world with a good deal more skepticism than Maisie. Take Phillip Marlowe and Spenser, for instance.
So how does this mystery novel help the traveler? Set in London and in the countryside of Sussex and Kent in the teens and twenties of the 20th century, it describes a bygone age. And yet, please forgive me English friends, I tend to picture England and particularly London, in the early twentieth century anyhow. This even though I’ve been there and know about the Millennium Bridge and the Eye and the bustles of the modern world. It is still the Mews and the Beefeaters and the venerable government buildings that come to mind. Furthermore, Winspear shows us a class system that is definitely altered by the advent of “The Great War,” but cannot be avoided even today in a country with a Queen and titled landowners.
Maisie likes to take walks, and as we follow her, we see London:
She entered Palace Road from Royal Street, and turned right to walk toward Westminster Bridge. She loved to watch the Thames first thing in the morning. Those Londoners who lived just South of the river always said they “were going over the water” when they crossed the Thames, never referring to the river by name unless they were speaking to a stranger.
And Winspear drops little tidbits that read like guidebook entries, like this about Mecklenburg Square which is very little changed since Maisie walked there in 1929, and Virginia Woolf lived there in 1939:
Named in honor of Charlotte of Mecklinburgh-Strelitz who became queen consort upon her marriage to George III of England, the gracious Georgian houses of the square were set around a garden protected by a wrought-iron fence secured with a locked gate.
As Maisie loves the countryside (out of the smoke, as her father says), we also are introduced to other areas of England.
In France, she had dreamed of Kent, of apple orchards in full blossom, primroses and bluebells carpeting the woodland, and the soft countryside stretching out before her.
Because of her skillful presentation of life as it was in the period of the war, and because the detailed descriptions allow the reader to see London and see the countryside, this is a fine book to add to the traveler’s Library.
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I would like to thank the photographers who share their pictures via Creative Commons License at Flickr for these amazingly appropriate pictures. You can thank them by clicking on the image to learn more. And a special thank you to regular readers Colleen Alley and Lorrie McCallum who both recommended that I read Winspear, and start with the first book, Maisie Dobbs.
Are you a reader of “cozies?” Would you classify Maisie Dobbs as a cozy?