May 18, 2010

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

The year is 1929, and the Great War has been over for a decade. Following her mentor’s retirement, Maisie Dobbs sets up her own London office and begins an independent career as a private investigator. Her first case seems typical at first—a man who suspects his wife of being unfaithful wants her followed. But Maisie’s methods and work ethics are anything but conventional, and as she applies them to the case at hand she unravels a complex story: a story about wounds that go back a decade, about a society still recovering from the scars left by an unprecedentedly devastating war; and about Maisie’s own past, which she has no choice but to confront at last.

Maisie Dobbs isn’t only a mystery: it’s also a story about an Edwardian young woman growing up, moving from poverty to a world of comfort and education, and having her life irrevocably changed by the war. There’s a long flashback about a third of the way into the novel through which we learn Maisie’s own story: her working class origins, her life as a domestic servant, her time at Girton College, and her service as a nurse during the Great War.

There was quite a bit that I liked about Maisie Dobbs: the glimpses into the pre-World War I Edwardian world and into post-war society; the descriptions of the war period and of civilian life during it; the emphasis on how the war was experienced by people of different genders and different social backgrounds; the commentary on class; and most of all the sensitive analysis of the long-term consequences of an experience as devastating as WWI, both at an individual and at a social level.

Much of Maisie Dobbs is about the wounds, visible or not, that returned soldiers brought with them, and about the consequences that these had on their lives and on the lives of those who loved them. Jacqueline Winspear writes not only about psychological damage, but also about disfiguring scars or disabilities – and the reactions these caused in a society that didn’t necessarily want to be reminded of the war it had left behind. I also liked the focus on how the war was fought. For example, Billy Beale, who works at Maisie’s office, tells her about the fate that awaited those who dared show the fear that every soldier experienced:
“And when that ‘appened, when a boy was paralysed with fear, like, ‘e could be reported for cowardice. If ‘e’d been seen afterwards, not ‘aving gone off with the rest of his mates, the brass didn’t ask too many questions, did they? No, the poor dos’s on a charge and that’s it. So we ‘ad to look out for each other, didn’t we?”
Drawing the red cloth across his brow, the young man continued his story for Misie.
“Court-martialed, they were. And you know what ‘appened to a lot of them, don’t you? Shot. Even if some of ‘em weren’t quite so innocent, villains getting up to no goof when they should’ve been on the line, it ain’t the way to go, is it? Not shot by their own. Bloody marvellous, ain’t it? You pray your ‘ead off that the Kaiser’s boys won’t get you, then it’s your own that do.”
Also, this scene, a goodbye between a father and a son at a railway station, just about killed me:
“You mind and do your best, son. Your mother would have been proud of you.”
“I know, Dad,” said the son, moving his gaze to his father’s lapels.
“And you mind you keep your head out of the way of the Kaiser’s boys, lad. We don’t want you messing up that uniform, do we?”
The boy laughed, for he was a boy and not yet a man.
“All right, Dad, I’ll keep my boots shined, and you look after Patch.”
“Safe as houses, me and Patch. We’ll be waiting for you when you come home, son.”
Unfortunately, there was also a lot about Maisie Dobbs that I found off-putting, beginning with Maisie herself. At first glance, she seems the exact kind of heroine that I tend to love. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe in her – there was something about the characterisation that felt artificial to me. For example, as Maisie is working on her cases, she often remembers the words of her mentor, Maurice Blanche, and the reader is subjected to a little lecture taking place in Maisie’s mind. The unfortunate effect of this technique is that it removes Maisie’s agency and makes her feel a bit like a puppet with someone else holding the strings, rather than the highly intelligent and resourceful woman we’re supposed to believe her to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with recognising the influence of those who taught us what we know, of course - but Maisie often didn’t seem to have a single thought of her own.

Then there were her investigation methods, which felt a bit too Introduction to Psychotherapy for my liking. But perhaps that won’t be so much of a problem for those of you who didn’t sit through actual introduction to psychotherapy classes shifting uncomfortably in your chair and repeatedly thinking, “I have got to change my major.” Anyway, it wasn’t really the fact that she used psychotherapy techniques to solve her cases that bothered me: it was the fact that they were dubious techniques, with an almost new-agey vibe to them. For example, she’d often emulate someone’s pose, movements and body language, and as a result she’d immediately and magically gain perfect insight into what they were feeling. Those scenes always made me laugh out loud, and I suspect that comedy was very much not the intended effect. Needless to say, the fact that I was so sceptic about Maisie’s methods was yet another thing that undermined my belief in her as a character.

In addition to this, there was a lack of subtlety to the writing that bothered me a lot: Maisie Dobbs would have been a much better novel if not for the bright neon signs constantly drawing attention to The Point and making sure that no distracted reader could possibly miss it. Having said this, I do plan on reading the second volume in the series, Birds of a Feather – I already own it anyway, and the historical setting interests me enough to make this series a worthwhile read regardless of my qualms. Hopefully there will be fewer of these in the second book, and I’ll be able to get on with it better than I did with Maisie Dobbs.

Other opinions: Lakeside Musings, Aneca’s World, World Lily, Lesley’s Book Nook, A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy, You Can Never Have Too Many Books, A Book a Week

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Just wait until you read the sequels - they get better and better and better! (This one has a ton of back story that bogs things down a bit).

  2. Ooh I like the sound of this!!

  3. The historial setting appeals to me, I will reserve judgement if your planning on reading the 2nd one anyway.

  4. I've had these on my TBR list for ages with the intention of getting to them one day. I know we often talking about a second book not living up to the rest of the series, but some times the set up can take a bit of a shine off of a book.

  5. It sounds like I enjoyed this a bit more than you, and I think listening to the audio was a plus for me. Still haven't gotten to the second book, but I'm expecting it will be even better with the background established.

  6. I'd heard good things about this one, and thought that it had something for everyone. I trust your instincts though, and by the way you describe it, I fear I would find those aspects a little annoying.

  7. Sorry that it didn't work for you. I am not sure if it would be my cup of tea anyway.

  8. I have to disagree with the first commenter -- this first book is the only one that I liked strongly (of the three I read)!

    I am not a mystery-ish person and I liked the backstory so much in this one. I read in pre-blogging days so I wonder if I was less critical of plot set up and all that. I do remember it being convenient, but I find all detective books that way, so The Point didn't both me as it apparently bothered you. Anyway, I'd be interested to hear how you liked the others in comparison.

  9. That's funny that you mention the psychotherapy. It was such a popular thing in those days and so many authors were dabbling with it. It makes me wonder what people many years from now will notice in trends of what remains of our literature as classics.

  10. I had the same reaction to this as you: I liked parts of it, and I thought I should have liked it so, so much (plucky girl heroine! UK between the wars!), but the simplistic psychobabble drove me crazy, and I didn't finish the book. Blech.

  11. How odd about the psychotherapy. I giggle at the thought of assuming their pose and getting an insight to their feelings as well. Sounds like not the book for me :)

  12. I've read several great reviews of the Maisie books. The fact that you want to read the 2nd one makes me think you didn't hate this one. I'll wait to see what you think of the next one.

  13. My reaction to this series (well, what I've read of it — the first three books) is similar to Rebecca Reid's: I really enjoyed the first one, mostly because of the setting and back story. But the next two I disliked progressively more, mainly because of the kooky new-agey detecting techniques. I still haven't completely given up on the series (I own the next several, but not all), but it's been a long time now since I read one.

    I'll definitely be interested in seeing what you think of Birds of a Feather.

  14. When I read this a few years ago, I really enjoyed it a lot. But like you, I think I was more interested in the non-mystery elements of the book, that is the portrayal of post-WWI London. I thought that Maisie's back story was really interesting and at times heartbreaking, but I agree that the psychotherapy bits drove me bonkers! Alas, if I recall correctly, they continue in the next book...

  15. Okay, I can comment now that I cleaned the coffee off my laptop. I've come close to spewing coffee on my computer in the past, but I think this is the first time I actually did! This absolutely killed me:

    But perhaps that won’t be so much of a problem for those of you who didn’t sit through actual introduction to psychotherapy classes shifting uncomfortably in your chair and repeatedly thinking, “I have got to change my major.”

    With sooooo many incredible books out there waiting for this incredibly slow reader, I think I'll just leave this off the wish list for now. Instead, I need to get to the Dorothy Sayers, right? :D

  16. At first this sounded like something that I had to get my hands on, but reading further into your review makes me think that this book might end up annoying me. I have heard of this book, but didn't know much about it, so I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of it. It sounds like the book had some fatal flaws, and though there were some good aspects, it wasn't a total success with you. I think I will probably skip this one.

  17. I've often thought of reading this but just haven't made the commitment yet. Interesting what you say about subtlety. I fear I'm a reader who needs to be hit over the head sometimes.

  18. We've already discussed our feelings towards this book via email, but I WILL say that one of my closest book swapping friends really likes this series so I *may* be giving it another chance. It's fairly low on the priority list at the moment, though. Certainly after Sayers ;-)

  19. Uh oh, new-agey vibe? I have this book out of the library and am very curious about it. I´m hoping I´ll still like it although the points you mentioned might put me off as well. Although I think I´m used to detectives in mystries to have the weirdest and most unrealisitc method´s to figure out whodunnit. If I can like Maisie as a character then I´m sure I´ll enjoy it but if not then I probably won´t read more of the series.
    That´s a great cover though! :)

  20. Sadly, your final comment about the scars and disabilities applies to American society today and our returning vets, who deserve every help in starting a new life. My work is slightly later than this time frame, but the book still sounds interesting.

  21. Your problems with the book are similar to the problems I had with it. I wanted to like it - the premise sounded good and the cover was great (though different from the one you have above). But I couldn't buy into Maisie as a character. I did admire her early morning study regimen when she was working as a servant.

  22. Oh, sounds interesting! I like the mystery aspect, but I also like how the book deals with other stuff, too.

  23. I'm sorry this one didn't live up to your expectations Nymeth. I love this series and oddly enough I like those particular things you didn't like. Yes, Maisie is hard to like but I attribute that to her experiences in the war. The new agey stuff, well, I guess I just like that sort of thing :)

    I don't really read these for the mystery aspect I must say. I like these books for the setting and what they have to say about the people who were living at the time. I hope you'll enjoy the second book a bit more!

  24. I felt very much as you did about this book. Maisie's detective skills felt too much like magic and "amazing super intuition" for me to believe it. And so much detail--every little gesture described and explained and then explained again. (But leaving out the, you know, clues that could enable the reader to solve the mystery.) However, I did like the period and the way Winspear dealt with the history, so read about half of the second book, until it fell out of my pocket somewhere in London. I didn't care enough to find another copy.

    I did listen to the third book on audio, which is a format where I don't always mind neon-light storytelling. And it was a little better in that format, although the flaws were still present.

  25. I really liked the Maisie Dobbs book and am looking forward to more of them. I found the set up a little long, and am looking forward to more mystery, and less Maisie background. I really like the covers, and am probably going to buy some of the books.

    I can see your criticisms, and once those things start to get in your head, you can't get them out. Luckily, they didn't bother me.
    Of course, I'm a huge mystery fan, and this had a unique character, and great setting, which are plenty to bring me back.

  26. Oh, nearly every time I visit your blog I want to rush out and get the book you've reviewed, because even if you don't love it, you make it sound so intriguing.

    I think I am going to have to check out this series.

  27. Sorry to hear that it didn't quite work for you. Anyway, I will check it out, as it does sound interesting.

  28. This sounds great! I've always been in awe of those women who made the transition from Victorian era through to post war. The world has changed immensely, in every form and way, through that time. It's amazing.

  29. I'm sorry it was different from what you expected. Saying that, I really liked it except for the bits about the Ceylonese shaman and Maisie's shaky detection which weren't too convincing. But I really enjoy the world Winspear creates and the dark legacy of war. You may like the next book better.

  30. I'm glad you are planning on reading the next one. I love this series, and while I didn't have a problem with the things that were a bit annoying to you, I think you will find that they decrease with each book. In fact, there is a book that deals with Maurice and their relationship, in which she grows quite a bit, and while there is always a bit of psychic sensitivity and intuition involved in her investigations, the psychoanalytical stuff kind of fades away as the books go on. They all tend to focus very much on the psychological effects of the war and its aftermath, and I love that and the historical time period, and I think you will too. :-)

  31. I felt pretty similar about this book. Though I was perhaps a little harsher about the writing than you were. There were things I liked, and the flashback, the history, was the part I liked the most. It was kind of disappointing because I *wanted* to like it and Maisie Dobbs, very much, and I haven't brought myself to read Birds or a Feather yet.

  32. Colleen: I hope I'll get on with the sequels better. There really was a lot about this one that I liked.

    Elise: I hope you'll enjoy it more than I did - most people do seem to.

    Jessica: I'll report back once I have!

    Marg: True - I do hope I'll like the second one more.

    JoAnn: I look forward to your thoughts on Birds of a Feather. I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but as mine was an omnibus edition I might as well read it.

    Sandy: Yeah, there was a lot about it that I think other readers might find annoying too. But I'm glad I read it anyway.

    Vivienne: I don't regret reading it, so that's something! But as Teresa said below, the Mary Russell books cover the same time period and are so much more enjoyable (for me).

    Rebecca: It seems that the sequels divide opinions - I wonder in which camp I'll fall! Anyway, when I said she kept pointing out The Point (ha - what an awkward sentence :P) I didn't mean it in regards to the mystery or the plot; I meant the emotional insights. It was those that were a bit too obvious for my liking.

    Amanda: The funny thing is that when I read books that are actually from this time period and not historical fiction, I don't notice psychotherapy as a trend at all. Maybe she included it because on retrospect she noticed it was gaining such momentum back then? I think I also read somewhere that the author was a self-help personal trainer before becoming a writer, so it might have been that too.

    Jenny: Yes - it was especially the fact that it was so simplistic that bothered me.

    Amy: It's just such a bizarre idea! Almost like having psychic powers, but not overt enough that I could file it under fantasy and move on :P

    Kathy: I didn't love it, but I definitely didn't hate it either.

    Hannah: Uh oh...I wonder how I'll feel about the second if the kooky new-agey techniques become even MORE prominent :\

    Steph: The flashback about Masie's life was definitely my favourite section of the book. I'd probably have been happier if the whole book had focused on that! And argh, you're the second person to tell me the psycho-babble continues :S We'll see how I feel about it.

    Debi: Yes! You definitely need to read Sayers! And of these days it's going to be me spilling coffee on my laptop :S

  33. My best friend loves these books and is always on me to read them. I think it sounds like a good summer read.

    (sorry I have been absent lately, am just now catching up with book blogs! I keep an eye on yours, however...)

  34. My husband has read this one and pretty much expressed the same likes and dislikes. Hopefully I will get to it one of these days as he does think I'll probably enjoy it.

  35. Zibilee: I so recommend giving it a try, as most people seem to enjoy it a good deal more than I did. But it's probably best not to approach it with VERY high expectations.

    Amy: I definitely do need some things pointed out to me as well! I wonder if the fact that I've been reading so much about WW1 and the early 20th century lately made the book seem more obvious than it otherwise would have?

    Aarti: Yes, after Sayers is a good idea ;)

    Bina: I hope you do like it! I didn't hate it or anything, but I expected more. I look forward to your review.

    Shelley: I hadn't thought of that, but I imagine that it's just as difficult today, yes :\

    Christy: Yes, she was nothing if not determined! But like you I couldn't quite believe in her, and that rather ruined things for me.

    Emidy: That's the best sort of mystery, I think.

    Iliana: Nothing wrong with liking that stuff! I hope I didn't sound dismissive; it's just the sceptic in me :P

    Teresa: So true! There was too much emphasis on the *wrong* sort of detail, and not enough on the kind of information that could allow readers to join the dots. Such a pity.

    raidergirl3: I can definitely see why the series is so unique and I understand why it's so successful. Hopefully I'll be able to ignore the things that put me off in the second book.

    Violet: I look forward to hearing what you think!

    Andreea, I hope you like it better than I did!

    Mae: Yes! I find that absolutely fascinating as well.

    Sakura: Yeah, that stretched credibility a little bit, didn't it? But I did love the historical setting.

    Darla: I'm glad to hear that! I'll read Birds of a Feather soon and report back.

    Kiirstin: I know - I wanted to like it too, which made it even more of a let down :\ Thanks for your link!

    Daphne: Nothing to be sorry about! We all get busy sometimes :)

    Wendy: I think there are things about it you'll definitely enjoy, even if others bother you too. Looking forward to your thoughts on it :)

  36. To be honest, reading what you don't like those are the couple things that bothered me about this first book in the series and is part of the reason why it took me so long to get to book two. It seems to have grown on me, though, because by the second book I was really addicted to the series... I hope this happens for you!

  37. I'm glad you left a comment on my review, I enjoyed reading your reservations. The only bit that bothered me was that abrupt rewinding to her childhood. I actually really liked the new-agey parts.


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