Archive for the ‘Maisie Dobbs’ Tag

Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Lesson in Secrets” Keeps Many


When I discovered that Jacqueline Winspear had a new Maisie Dobbs novel out, I decided I would buy it immediately, and then read it immediately. I got it the same day it came out and finished it by the weekend. “A Lesson in Secrets” finds Maisie as a professor in Cambridge. However, it isn’t Cambridge University, rather a small start up school founded on private donations and dedicated to promoting peace rather than war. Maisie is asked by the police and Secret Service to go undercover at this school in order to find out more about the school’s founder. He is under suspicion for causing dissension among British soldiers, based on a children’s book that he wrote. As usual, Maisie is wholly dedicated to completing her assignment, along with helping Billy Beale, her assistant, and his family find a new home; rescue a bereaved and vengeful widow; and unsuccessfully trying to ignore her love life. And, also per usual, she succeeds at all her endeavors.

Perhaps it is the breadth of problems Miss Dobbs faces that makes the novel lose focus. Or perhaps it is my own bias towards academia that disappointed me when virtually no mention was made of Maisie as a professor of philosophy. Honestly, I didn’t care for it. The writing and story seemed more rushed. Typically, Winspear’s novels have three parts to it: the job, the family/friends, the personal. This one blurred lines, and had tangents that were sent off into the dark. For example, the young widow who’s husband was mysteriously killed. Sure, she saw something of her own past in this woman, but hardly any attention was given to her and the woman’s difficulties were often a complication of the plot, rather than a fully formed subplot. I think it would have been better just to leave it out altogether. Also, the help she gave to Billy and his family was a kind gesture, but just another thing she had to worry about. I don’t mind subplots, I just like them a little more well-done.

When I read that Maisie was going to go undercover as a philosophy professor I was even more excited than I would be about a new Maisie book. I imagined re-learning philosophy from the perspective of this admiral character and author. I thought I would be re-introduced to a philosophy I hadn’t given much thought to prior to reading her perspective. I see now that I put my expectations WAY too high. The only mention of the class was when Maisie was walking out it, into it, thinking about it, late to it, or just simply missing it. Then I thought that however high my expectations, that I deserved a little bit of philosophy and therefore became disappointed rather that disillusioned (that feeling could be represented in the relationship between projectile vomiting and feeling vaguely nauseated).

I don’t wish to say that I actively disliked it, I only say that it wasn’t one of my favorites. This is her eighth book and you can’t have a winner every time. I would say that “An Incomplete Revenge” (#5) was not the best, nor was “Among the Mad” (#6). Though, I do think that “Birds of a Feather” (#2) was her most powerful, and “The Messenger of Truth” (#5) was solid. ‘The Mapping of Love and Death” (#7) was excellent for many reasons that I can’t share without giving things away.

If you are a fan of the series, go ahead and read it. Sometimes you have to stick with authors through the good and the bad.

The Brilliance of Maisie Dobbs

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is by far one of the best series I have ever read. I don’t usually have a lot of time or energy for series, unless they are something like Harry Potter or the Dark Tower series, which really have more to do with a fast-paced compelling plot immersed in a fantasy world that I have to pull myself out of, almost physically. But detective mysteries that span six or seven books, no thanks. I’m sure I would get bored of the character’s inner musings and how they solve the case, just in the nick of time, to save someone’s life, or reputation, or something.

Maisie Dobbs, while having some of these distasteful qualities, is something quite more. Let me explain. She is, of course, British and living in London (Fitzroy, to be exact) during the inter-war period. She is a psychologist investigator with a twinge of Eastern philosophy in her practice. As a young woman, the daughter of a working-class father and a mother who died young, she is sent to be a servant in Lady Compton’s home (who later becomes her good friend and benefactor). Before the war, she is at Girton (Cambridge) and falls in love. As with many people before WWI, when it began, all life that resembled anything recognizable is wiped away instantly. She becomes a nurse in France through the end of the war. When she returns, she finishes her education. She then becomes apprenticed to Maurice Blanche, a private investigator whose business she soon takes over.

If it is not already apparent, a single woman working as a psychologist investigator is a very unlikely situation in this period, but an intensely desirable one (for the modern reader). She is pretty, but not too aware of it, she is intelligent, practical, methodical, and in control of her emotions and aware of her feelings. Her character is one that inspires imitation, awe, and respect.

To move beyond her character and to the plots of the books is to really look into the confusion and sadness that many felt after the war. The betrayal and loss runs deep and creates all sorts of consequential actions and feelings, not always manifested in depression, but sometimes anger, violence, and pride. The plot of a Maisie Dobbs novel usually has 3 components. One is the case that Maisie is to solve. It has, so far, had something to do with the war: an unexplained death or disappearance that has its roots in the war. Two, a personal obstacle that Maisie must overcome, also related to her time as a nurse in France. And three, a problem with a close friend or colleague, also some issue with the war. Although formulaic, the three components are  interesting and move the plot along quite quickly. And, since the components are thematically related, the reader finds no trouble bouncing back and forth between them. Usually, the friend/colleague sub-plot is given less treatment but the denouement is quite emotional, for Maisie and her friend/colleague. The main case speaks to a larger question of the conduct of the war, what the big players were doing: the military, the government, private but quite rich individuals with a lot of influence. Maisie’s personal journey is the most emotional and has the biggest pay off, because at the end of the novel, you know more about this enigmatic Maisie Dobbs.

I highly recommend them, and while they provide a little something to think about,  they are ultimately light reading, a compelling few hundred pages before going to bed or to take your mind off something more difficult.

They are (because I like to list things):

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth, Incomplete Revenge, and Among the Mad.