Pardonable Lies

“Or, Maisie,”–he had looked at her intently–“the task of asking questions, of peeling back layers of the past, reveals something that has nothing to do with the cases and everything to do with ourselves.”

I read the first two books in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series about two years ago, and it was high time I returned to England between the wars.

In Pardonable Lies, Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to fulfill his wife’s dying wish and investigate the death of their son in France during the war. She always believed that Ralph was alive, though in some ways he was dead to Sir Cecil even before becoming a pilot. When Maisie connects with her old school friend Priscilla she is surprised to receive a similar request. Peter is the only one of her brother’s whose grave she has not visited, because her mother threw away the telegram describing his death and burial.

pardonable liesWhat seem like routine investigations hold unseen challenges. Records are missing or inaccessible for both soldiers, and reading the papers the dead men left behind reveal that there may have been a link between the two. Unfortunately, that would mean a return to France for Maisie, who has not been since her dismal nursing days and injuries during the war over a decade prior. Her duties to her client and friend win out, and she embarks on a journey to confront the secrets and demons of the past.

Priscilla turned to Maisie. “I’m not used to this sort of talk, but here’s what I think: I think that the dragon is part of us. What happened, happened. We saw into the jaws of a terrible creature as he feasted upon us all. That is war. You have to find a way to acknowledge and live with it.”

Pardonable Lies turned out to be my favorite entry in the series so far. Maisie comes across as much more human and vulnerable. The plot was also…I don’t want to use the term romantic, but it’s the closest I can think of. We have undercover missions and secret liasons, and a French village that recalled Assignment in Brittany. The horror and tragedy of the war are still present, but I guess the figures involved just seemed more heroic somehow.

I wanted to finish this review first, but I hope there is not as long of a gap until I read the next Maisie Dobbs. I’ve heard that the series improves as it continues.

Published in: on November 14, 2012 at 11:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Birds of a Feather

“That’s one more thing that I detest about war. It’s not over when it ends. Of course, it seems as if everyone’s pally again, what with agreements, the international accords, and contracts and so on. But it still lives inside the living, doesn’t it?”

I like to read books in a series close enough to recall characters and events (depending on the series), but spread out enough to savor each and include other books. With Jacqueline Winspear’s, however, I’m so far behind that I turned to Birds of a Feather just a few months after reading Maisie Dobbs.

image from fantasticfiction.uk.co

Maisie continues with her private investigation agency, even though the 1929 economy has left many others in London out of work. She and her assistant Billy are summoned to find the missing daughter of self-made butchering mogul Joseph Waite. Finding a missing socialite who sparred one too many times with her father seems simple enough, but the case takes on greater urgency when it appears to connect with a murder that Maisie’s friend Detective Inspector Stratton is investigating. To follow her hunches Maisie will have to drive all over the countryside, use her connections as best she can, and even look to events from the Great War for truth. Meanwhile Billy seems to have much that he is reluctant to share with Maisie.

I don’t know if I’m alone in saying that I enjoyed this for atmosphere much more than mystery. While the former is fantastic, Ms. Winspear doesn’t exactly plot in the style that I prefer. For example, we learn that Maisie has found an important clue in the victim’s room, but she doesn’t reveal what it is until much later in the book so that the solution will come as a surprise. In addition, I tend to take Maisie’s intuition with a grain of salt. She would have made a great actress with her belief that body language controls the tension in a room, and mimicking a person’s posture will tell you their feelings. Though effective, her methods strike me as a little too New Age for three quarters of a century ago. What do others think of this?

On the other hand, you can tell that Ms Winspear not only has done thorough research into the post-WWI era but also has the experience of living in England herself, having been born and raised there. At one point she is eating while driving and reaches over with her left hand to open the picnic basket. It took me a moment to make sense of this until I remembered that British cars are the opposite of ours! It’s touches like this that lend realism to the narration. In addition, the shadows of the war continue to color daily life with tinges of sadness in a way that makes my heart ache. For example, Waite’s store has a memorial for the many young employees who joined up together, and all died together when the regiment was attacked.

Finally, I’m torn about Maisie herself. She seems aloof, and so much older than she really is. I’m sure this is intentional, a combination of her natural wisdom and wartime experiences. Luckily Billy is enough to balance her out most of the time. (Als0, Maisie needs to start actually eating food or she will die of starvation. Is this her “punishment”?)

Despite misgivings about Maisie Dobbs the character, I’m sold on Maisie Dobbs the series and will have to read the next one in the near future.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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Maisie Dobbs

“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.

image from ala.org

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.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 10:39 pm  Comments (2)  
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