I mentioned the other day that I came across a new find – Jacqueline Winspear‘s “Maisie Dobbs” books, which is a mystery series set in 1930s London. There are four books so far in the series: “Maisie Dobbs”, “Birds of a Feather”, “Pardonable Lies” and “Messenger of Truth”. These books are shelved under Mystery, but really, the mystery plotline is just one element of the books.
Maisie Dobbs is a private investigator, but one with a difference – I’ll be lazy and quote the character blurb from Ms Winspear’s website here:
At thirteen, after losing her mother, the intuitive young Maisie began working as a housemaid. With diligence and determination, she enrolled at Girton College, but after her first year, left to serve her country as a nurse. Following the war, Maisie returned to school to get her degree. She has since established herself as a successful psychological investigator under Maurice Blanche’s rigorous guidance. With the help of an extraordinary intuitiveness about the workings of the human mind, Maisie now has a flourishing practice of her own.
So what makes these books special?
Well, for one, the post-WWI setting. Now I know there must be lots of books set in this time period, but I don’t actively search for them. So this is a new setting to me and Ms Winspear does an excellent job of conveying the human impact of a war – the bravery both of those sent to the Front and those staying behind, and the strength needed to pick up the strands of everyday lives after the War. It’s also very much a time of change, with women gaining a lot more independence, the idea of being “in service” dying out – again, I thought the social history aspects were described really well.
[As an aside, I do remember reading LM Montgomery’s “Rilla of Ingleside”, which was set during WWI, and sobbing my eyes out towards the end. That was my favourite among the “Anne of Green Gables” series, though I much preferred her Emily books.]
Getting back to Maisie, she’s a rather likeable heroine. How she applies psychology to understand people’s motives and emotions is very interesting, and I’m hoping to read more about her training with Maurice Blanche. I did wonder how likely it would have been for a household maid to attend Oxford in the time period, but the background Ms Winspear sketches in for Lady Rowan Compton makes it rather plausible, and well, I really don’t know enough about this period to say one way or another.
I also love the London setting and period detail in these books – there’s lots of detail about the places Maisie goes to, and also how things were done back then. And as I read, I mentally place myself in her shoes, and go “Hmmm… so she’s left Warren Street Station and now she’s heading towards Mayfair…” – and because I know the area (sort of-ish), it would definitely jar if Ms Winspear wrote in a logistical impossibility and I haven’t spotted any so far.
At times, Ms Winspear does veer dangerously close to info-dumping, but hey, it’s fascinating. I never knew how they used to start up motorcars back then! She also captures the whole “upstairs-downstairs” atmosphere of the times, for instance, how it was just expected you would have maids to draw baths and bring you dinner on trays – I know these are mentioned in many historical romances, but they just don’t come near the detail described here.
I admit I don’t particularly care for the “woo-woo” aspects to the books – at times, Maisie appears to have a psychic ability to read people’s feelings and see past events. At the moment, I don’t know if it’s just her intuition and psychology training, or whether Ms Winspear’s actually suggesting Maisie has some sort of sixth sense, but this is the one element that pulls me out of the story slightly.
I actually felt that the mystery plot was the weakest point in the first book – more time was spent on the backstory and setting the scene. However, I was completely caught up in the mystery in the second book, and the third has started off really promisingly.
So if you’re looking for a new mystery series, I would definitely suggest you try these books!
Oh, and because I am a romance reader – I have to say (with slight spoilers ahead for the first book):
I was desperately hoping for a HEA for her and Simon all throughout the first book – even though I knew it wouldn’t happen because I errr… flipped through the pages of the fourth book beforehand, and figured out what happened to Simon. Ms Winspear’s website alludes to a romance in later books though, so I’ll be hoping for a satisfying romance to come…