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By Jacqueline Winspear
Penguin Books Reprint edition (May 1, 2004)
Reviewed by Karen Meek
This is the story of Maisie Dobbs, the eponymous heroine of the book, as she travels through the ranks of early twentieth century English society, from daughter of a costermonger to her arrival as ‘Psychologist and Investigator’.
The book begins with Maisie just starting up her own business and getting her first case, a husband who fears that his wife is having an affair. Though this is not the sort of work Maisie is after, she trusts her instincts and takes the job. Following her client’s wife she ends up at an out of town cemetery where the woman puts flowers on a grave marked only as ‘Vincent’. Befriending the woman, Maisie discovers that Vincent had recently been at a farm for disfigured soldiers called ‘The Retreat’ and had died accidentally. There are several graves marked with only one name and Maisie finds this a little suspicious. She becomes more concerned when her patron Lady Rowan, says that her son wishes to join The Retreat.
The second part of the book deals with Maisie’s upbringing and how Lady Rowan became Maisie’s friend. Maisie’s mother died young and all the money earmarked for Maisie’s education was spent on treatments and holidays for her mum. Her dad finally decided that it would be best for Maisie if she entered service where she would at least be fed and have a warm bed. One of his regular customers, Lady Rowan Compton allows Maisie to join her household as a maid. It is not long before Maisie is sneaking into the downstairs library at night to continue her studies. Inevitably she is caught, but instead of dismissal, she is to be tutored by Lady Rowan’s friend Dr. Blanche. Maisie is eventually able to attend Girton College in Cambridge but the Great War cuts short her learning as, after the death of a friend, she joins up as a volunteer nurse. She is eventually posted to France where, amidst the bloodshed, she falls in love.
The final sector of the book is where the investigation takes place with Maisie discovering what is going on at The Retreat. The reader also gets to know what happened to the man who wanted to marry her.
I very much enjoyed reading this. The historical setting felt real and the horror of the war brought tears to my eyes. Maisie Dobbs is an interesting character but I particularly liked some of the less major characters such as her nursing friend, Iris and Maisie’s new sidekick Billy Beale. There is a slight hint of the supernatural about Maisie’s abilities as she sometimes senses danger when she looks at people and there are many ‘Kung-Fu’ style mystic proclamations such as "truth walks towards us on the paths of our questions" from her mentor Dr. Blanche.
In summary this is a better novel than it is a mystery, nonetheless it was nominated for both Edgar and Agatha awards. I tend to prefer plot-driven crime stories but even without the high amount of mystery, I found Maisie’s story absorbing and I’m especially looking forward to her tackling a complicated case.
The second title in this series is BIRDS OF A FEATHER, published by Soho Press (June, 2004).
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