“As Lady Rowan had said, ‘So, my dear, what will you call yourself? I mean, we all know what you do, but what will be your trade name? You can hardly state the obvious. “Finds missing persons, dead or alive, even when it’s themselves they are looking for” really doesn’t cut the mustard.’”
Maisie Dobbs has been on my radar for a long time, perhaps since the second book in the series was published. Since the third I’ve been picking them up when they become Barnes and Noble bargain books, and a little while ago I was fortunate enough to win a copy of the latest, The Mapping of Love and Death, from Danielle at A Work in Progress. This was the impetus I needed to finally track down the first book of the series at the library.
The series is set in London ten years after the first World War, when Maisie has just set up shop on her own and is asked by a man to investigate the daily activities of his wife. In the process Maisie stumbles upon a scenario with more than meets the eye. Curiosity compels her to dig deeper, and leads to refuge for disfigured veterans known as “The Retreat.” Is it simply a compound where men learn to cope with their wounds, or do its closed gates hold something a little more sinister?
As the quote above suggests, despite Maisie’s acute powers of observation her main approach is based on understanding the emotional and psychological nuances of those involved in the investigation. She is extremely perceptive of their needs based on body language and past experiences. She treats everyone with an empathy both natural and calculated, giving her the information she needs while providing catharsis for the sharer.
In various ways Maisie Dobbs reminded me of other reads. Like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, the mystery almost seems secondary to character and life experiences. Jacqueline Winspear is clearly setting up a series with the amount of backstory provided. A large section of the book is a flashback, and the process of Maisie training specifically for this job was sometimes reminiscent of Mary Russell in the first of Laurie King’s books. In addition, much time is devoted to Maisie’s service in the war itself. To be honest, WWI is probably the major war for which I know least about life on and off the battlefield. I found myself drawing heavily on my recollection of Atonement for its stark depiction of combat conditions.
Overall, the book is a keen look at the ways in which the war will affect a generation forever, like a ghost of the past that never completely disappears. If the mystery itself was less than satisfying, Ms. Winspear has created a cast of sympathetic characters whom I look forward to meeting again in the next book.