Friday, May 18, 2012

Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear)

A staple of my favorite mystery works is the presence of an engaging sleuth. I forget the intricacies of motive or the originality of the crime for a moment; I am primarily drawn -- above all else -- to the main character. In Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, I get just that: an keenly observant young woman whose brilliance, dedication, and courage has not only helped her survive the Great War but has even helped her establish herself as a private investigator in the years after.

Setting gives the Maisie Dobbs series a unique voice. In this eponymous introduction, Ms Winspear not only establishes Maisie's first case as a discreet private eye, but also digs into her beginnings as a young girl serving a wealthy and noble family, the Comptons. It chronicles a delicate time in history. The Great War touches demands sacrifices from everyone, from the working class to the wealthy, and losses are too many to count. On the homefront, class divides are slowly being broken down while independent women like Maisie begin establishing a firmer voice in society. These upheavals are evident in Maisie Dobbs, turning this mystery into a commentary on the times as well.

While Maisie's first case bookends this novel, it is her past that forms the bulk. Readers are introduced to how Lady Rowan Compton helps Maisie with her education until she is on her way to Cambridge for further studies. But because of the War, Maisie decides to join up as a nurse, and we become privy to a tender and painful period of Maisie's life, one that she does not readily share with others. When she is hired to investigate private marital matters, she uncovers more than she expected -- a secret retreat where disfigured soldiers go, and one that awakens in her all the emotions that she has locked behind after the War. Ms Winspear weaves emotional depth into what first seems to be an open-and-shut mystery case, and she does it without being heavy-handed about it. She lets us follow Maisie's careful and logical observations in detail so we don't question the rationality of her heroine's actions, but at the same she allows us to see the humanity and weaknesses that lie behind the investigator's strong mask. In the end, it's this combination of historical portraiture and subtle emotion that makes Maisie Dobbs a truly fascinating mystery series.

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