Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

My unintentional dive into historical mysteries continues with Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s series. This series has been on my radar for a while. It’s not just because of the striking covers (which I love), but because Maisie’s cases over the years are often related to important events in history: World War I, the changes to British society during the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of fascism, World War II, etc. I love a good genre mashup. What I found was so much more. Maisie has an unusually philosophical approach to cases, cases that are equally unique among the plots I’ve read. Like its protagonist, this novel asks bigger questions than whodunit and how do we catch them.

We meet Maisie Dobbs as she is setting up her office and taking her first case as a private investigator. She’s prepared for this for years, so it’s not surprising that she reacts with dismay when she learns the details of that very first case. Like many private detectives, in fiction and in real-life, Maisie is asked to find out if a woman is cheating on her husband. Unlike many of those other detectives, Maisie is just as concerned about what her client will do with the information as she is about finding out what happened…much to that client’s annoyance. He had no idea that he had just hired a detective who wants to take a more holistic approach.

Maisie “solves” the case of the possibly cheating wife quickly and efficiently, but stumbles across a much bigger case involving a group of disfigured veterans and fraud. This much bigger case leads Maisie down memory lane to places she’s tried very hard not to think about since the end of the Great War. The middle of Maisie Dobbs takes us from 1929 back to Maisie’s childhood and then World War I. Maisie was the precocious child of an impoverished and widowed costermonger. With no other opportunities, her father got her a job as an in-between maid for a wealthy lady. Maisie’s habit of getting up in the middle of the night to read books from the library led to her becoming the pupil of Maurice Blanche, who ended up teaching Maisie everything he knew about life, crime, and the human psyche. When war breaks out and Maisie sees her friends enlist as soldiers and nurses or take jobs in munitions plants, she takes a break from her studies at Girton College to become a nurse herself. This middle section felt like someone had taken down Maisie’s adult defenses and let us see the very young girl she used to be, before she had to protect herself from passion and grief. I understood Maisie a lot better after reading about her past.

When we return to the present and see Maisie take on The Retreat, an almost cult-like place for disfigured veterans to withdraw from the stares of outsides (for the price of signing over all their money and maybe not being allowed to leave). At the beginning of the novel, Maisie seemed like a model of discreet investigation. At the end, Maisie is not-so-surprisingly revealed to be a gutsy heroine who will risk danger in her determination to do the right thing.

Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing start to a mystery series. In a way, I’m glad that I’m late to the party. I have ten more books to read before I have to wait for Winspear to write and publish a new one. I want to see how Maisie evolves over the course of the series. I’m also very curious to see if the kinds of cases Maisie tackles are more than the typical murders and burglaries we see in this genre. The idea of an investigator trying to heal as much as solve her cases deeply intrigues me. After so many mysteries, it’s refreshing to come across something new.

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