I’ve been wanting to meet Maisie Dobbs for a while now. But with a series that has been running for a while now (9 books since 2003!), I felt a little intimidated. So many books! Was I too late to catch up? It feels silly to admit this but that is indeed how I feel about well-established series, whether crime/mystery or fantasy. I feel like the awkward latecomer, having closed the door with a bang, standing at the back, staring at everyone in their places. Of course books are more forgiving than that.
Yet it was with a little uneasiness (and also some glee) that I opened Maisie Dobbs, the first in the series, and settled down for a read.
With a steaming cup of tea at hand, I first met Maisie Dobbs at the Warren Street tube station in 1929 London. A newspaper vendor sizes her up, noticing her way of walking, her ‘bearing’ and decides she is “old money”, a “stuck-up piece of nonsense”. But as soon as she speaks to him, asking for a newspaper, he knows that she isn’t from old money. She does, however, have connections to old money. Lady Rowan Compton is her patron and former employer. But it is soon revealed that Maisie once was a maid in service, who cleaned the same Lady Rowan’s fireplace.
Today though, she is “M. Dobbs. Trade and Personal Investigations”.
She soon gets her first client, a Christopher Davenham, who is concerned that his wife is betraying their marriage. But after following Celia Davenham around, Maisie discovers the truth:
“Maisie knew that she had found the lover, the man who had caused Christopher Davenham to pay a princely sum for her services. The problem was that the man Christopher Davenham thought was cuckolding him was dead.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Vincent, the man Celia loved, died in a supposed accident at The Retreat, a farm for disfigured or disabled ex-soldiers. It turns out that James, Lady Rowan’s son, is due to join the same retreat.
“As she locked the door behind her, she reflected upon how strange it was that a man who had significant financial resources, time, and a beautiful house in the country would seek the peace and quiet that might dispel his dark mood by going to live on a stranger’s farm. Making her way downstairs in the half-light shed by the flickering gas lamp, Maisie felt a chill move through her body. And she knew that the sensation was not caused by the cold or the damp, but by a threat – a threat to the family of the woman she held most dear, the woman who had helped her achieve accomplishments that might otherwise have remained an unrealised dream.”
Then the book takes us back in time to 1910, Maisie is just 13 and her father is a widower who knows she needs more than he can provide. He finds her a place in the service of Lady Rowan. Lady Rowan’s home has a remarkable well-used library, and part of Maisie’s job is to light the fire at five every morning. She begins to linger a little longer before starting her work. She daringly begins to visit the library at 3, before the house starts to stir, giving her two hours before she has to start work. She heads first for the philosophy books:
“The feeling inside that she experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew that she needed this sustenance as surely as her body needed its fuel.”
But one day she is caught reading Latin by Lady Rowan, who is up late after a party. Instead of being sacked, Maisie finds herself being tutored by their friend Dr Maurice Blanche every fortnight (still working as a housemaid that is), and later, making her way to Girton, the women’s college of Cambridge. As Lady Rowan explains:
“Lord Compton and I are believers in education and opportunity. However, opportunities to contribute directly are rare.”
But the war intervenes and Maisie volunteers as a field nurse and finds herself falling for an army doctor.
“The writers said nothing of love when the first letter, from Simon to Maisie, was sent and received. But in the way that two people who are of one mind on any subject move closer, as if their heads were drawn together by thoughts that ran parallel toward a future destination, so the letters of Simon and Maisie became more frequent, one hardly waiting for the other to reply before setting pen to paper again. Bearing up under exhaustion that weighed on their backs and pushed like a fist between their shoulder blades, Simon and Maisie, each in a tent several miles apart, and each by the strained light of an oil lamp, would write quickly and urgently of days amid the detritus of war. And though both knew that war, and the ever-present breath of despair might have added urgency to their need to be together again, they began unashamedly to declare their feelings in the letters that were passed from hand to hand. Feelings that, with each shared experience and story, grew deeper.”
Maisie’s backstory grows on you, her humble beginnings, her intellect, the opportunities she doesn’t hesitate to take, are quite something. However, it was a bit hard to initially accept the seeming ease at which Maisie goes from maid to maid/student, and that the rest of the staff accept this without question. Then again, perhaps Lady Rowan’s reputation as a suffragette precedes her.
This book is typed as a crime/mystery but for me, it was about the glimpses of London, during and after WWI, ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, and life as a field nurse. I really enjoyed the second third of the book
To be honest, Maisie Dobbs’ first mystery isn’t all that suspenseful a read (her investigative skills are a mix of psychology and observation, which, while it makes for interesting details observed, means that there isn’t much in terms of plot twists, at least not in this first book), and the climax, well, I wasn’t really holding my breath. I guess this first book in the series might be more about establishing the backstory (a great backstory by the way) and introducing the characters of the series, than about the case itself.
But as Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing, intelligent woman, it made for an enjoyable read, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the Maisie Dobbs series!
Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in the county of Kent, England. Following higher education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, Jacqueline worked in academic publishing, in higher education and in marketing communications in the UK.
She emigrated to the United States in 1990, and while working in business and as a personal / professional coach, Jacqueline embarked upon a life-long dream to be a writer.
A regular contributor to journals covering international education, Jacqueline has published articles in women’s magazines and has also recorded her essays for KQED radio in San Francisco. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a regular visitor to the United Kingdom and Europe.
Maisie Dobbs (2003) (Agatha Award for Best First Novel)
Birds of a Feather (2004) (Agatha Award)
Pardonable Lies (2005) (Agatha Award nomination)
Messenger of Truth (2006) (Agatha Award nomination)
An Incomplete Revenge (2008)
Among the Mad (2009)
The Mapping of Love and Death (2010)
A Lesson in Secrets (2011)
Elegy for Eddie (2012)
Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013)
I received this book for review from TLC Book Tours
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