Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear — 320 pgs

Maisie Dobbs is just beginning to organize her own private investigation service in the city when she receives her first client. This distinguished gentleman requests that Maisie tail his wife, who he thinks may be deceiving and cuckolding him. What Maisie discovers will involve a group of seriously injured soldiers from the Great War and a secret facility designed to hide these men from the world. But this isn't just a straightforward mystery, for as Maisie reaches back into the past for the answers to her investigation, she also reflects upon the singular circumstances that have brought her to this time and place in her life. When Maisie was only fourteen, her mother took seriously ill and died, leaving her coaster-monger father to raise her alone with only a pittance to feed and clothe her. Maisie's father, Frank, seeks to rectify this situation by engaging Maisie as a housemaid in the the estate of Lady Compton, a well do to woman who feels the tug of social reform in her blood. When Maisie is discovered using the library in the middle of the night, Lady Compton gets an inkling that this girl may not be the typical run of the mill housemaid. She immediately sets up a situation whereby Maisie can be instructed and mentored, eventually earning herself a place at Cambridge University. Though Maisie longs for the intellectual life, her conscience eventually leads her to the front lines of the Great War as a combat nurse. Working tirelessly to save the lives of the young men she is faced with, Maisie finds herself in the arms of the handsome and intelligent Simon, a privileged and skilled doctor. But Maisie and Simon's future is far from assured, and as they struggle forward together into the present, Maisie must face one of the most difficult choices of her life. Working backwards from the past, this first book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series weaves the aspects of a mystery novel and a historical fiction novel seamlessly together to form this singularly unique tale of one young woman's ambition and her desire to fly in the face of expectations.

I'm not normally a reader of mysteries, so when my book club chose this book, I felt a few minutes of panic. Would I be able to get into the story and characters? What if the mystery was too cheesy and didn't hold my attention? What if I figured out the crux of the mystery too early and the book began to drag? I was so worked up about the fact that this might not be a good read for me that I kept putting it off and shoving it down in the pile for weeks and weeks. When I did finally get to it I was really surprised to discover that this wasn't your typical mystery, and the fact that it had a lot of historical elements made it a really good choice for me.

Though this book ostensibly starts with a mystery, very early on the story takes a turn into historical fiction. I learned where Maisie came from and how she became a scholar, nurse, lover and detective. These sections of the story were very well written. It wasn't hard for me to empathize with Maisie, and it was interesting to see the proverbial rags to riches story told in a very different way. Though Maisie doesn't become rich, she becomes accomplished, respected and very comfortable in her chosen profession, though she does have to inch her way through some very difficult and demanding situations. I think one of the reasons I liked her so much was because she seemed at times vulnerable but never powerless. I liked that she demonstrated such fortitude and that she never let anything stop her from accomplishing her goals. Though I probably wouldn't have made the same choices that she did, I respected her value system. She changed a lot throughout the book, but her changes never felt forced and the fact that she remained steadfast to her beliefs really made me cheer for her. As the historical section winds down, another mystery is added to the mix, and this time it's a mystery of Maisie's past.

Though I really liked the book, I felt that the mystery aspects of the story were a little less than impressive. I'm not sure if this is because I sometimes quickly lose interest in mysteries or if the mystery in this story was somewhat simple and less nuanced. It seemed that the mystery aspects were a little forced at times and I wasn't really convinced that I should care all that much about it. Also, as Nymeth mentions in her wonderful review of this book, some of Maisie's crime solving behavior seemed a little disingenuous. By this I mean that she often mimicked people's postures and inflections, and by doing this, she was immediately struck with revelations about the criminal and crime. I just didn't buy this at all. It was just too easy and lacked the creative flair that I had been expecting. I also thought that the denouement of the mystery wasn't all that satisfying. It all seemed very simple, and I had been hoping for something a little more sophisticated.

One of the things that made this book so interesting was the sections that dealt with the Great War. The war affected not only Maisie and her contemporaries but all of the general population. Many men were killed, injured and disfigured. Mothers lost both sons and daughters as they were either shipped out to become soldiers or medics, and there was a huge gap left in society that was unable to be filled. One of the things that this book addresses is the injuries, both spiritual and physical, that some of these young men suffered. It wasn't enough for them to have given their capabilities in battle, for more often than not, these same men came home utterly changed in so many ways that society couldn't deal with. The basis for the main mystery of this book focuses on this subject in great detail and paints a picture of a generation of men who came home to a family that couldn't recognize or cope with them. I found all this rather sad, and because it was based on historical fact, it spurred me on to search out more information regarding the war and it's effects.

Though this book was met with mixed success, I did really enjoy various parts of it. I think if the book had been infused with a little more historical flashback, it probably would have been a better read for me. I also think that if the mystery was a little more involved and complex it might have been more of a hit. I think the main problem was that this book combined two very different types of storytelling and the effect for me was that of a little lopsidedness. I'm not sure if I will be continuing on with this series, but I am glad that I gave this book a chance.

33 comments:

Kathy said...

Sorry you didn't like it so well. I have read all of the books in the series and enjoy them not so much for the mystery but for the period detail. They are "light" reads but I need a few like that. Nice review though, should give people enough info to make up their own mind.

Beth F said...

I felt that this book -- like so many first in series -- was less about the murder and more about setting the stage for the books to come. I liked the character of Maisie. On the other hand, although my own review of the novel was enthusiastic, it's interesting that I haven't picked up any more of them.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

So many people like this series, but I have never tried any. Interesting to hear your thoughts on this one. To me, if the mystery isn't compelling, there isn't any reason not to stick with nonfiction on this subject.

Harvee said...

I ussually like mysteries to be mysteries and historical novels to be historical novels. Mixing both is tricky and has been done well by some authors but looks like this book did not do it successfully. Interesting review.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I've heard a lot about this series but I haven't read any of them. I'm glad you somewhat enjoyed it. I don't read a lot of mysteries either.

Steph said...

I am totally with you that this book is less about the mystery and more about Maisie the character and the historical setting. I actually really enjoyed this book when I read it, but that was really because I was very touched by Maisie's back story and her connection to the Great War.

As for the series as a whole, I enjoyed the first few books I read, but then it all started to go downhill for me. I felt like Maisie failed to ever really evolve, and that really annoyed me. I stopped reading it a while back and picked up Laurie R. King's Mary Russell books instead... not a mistake!

Nymeth said...

The mimicking thing was just completely bizarre, wasn't it? I mean, seriously :P But I agree that the historical setting was really interesting. I actually own the second book and will pick it up someday.

Ti said...

I haven't paid too much attention to these books since I am not a huge mystery fan. I like mystery to be woven into fiction, but I don't like it as a primary genre. I just find them to be a bit too cozy for my taste. I need dysfunction and lots of it to feel satisfied.

Amy said...

I've been curious about these books since I started noticing and reading some reviews on blogs. I couldn't decide whether or not to read the first book because I wasn't sure what genre it was. It sounded as if there were elements of a few different genres combined and that made me think I'd probably be disappointed. I like mysteries but I'm picky, I want complexity, thought-provoking, a puzzle that requires focus and attention to detail! As I read your review, I felt like there's quite a bit going on in this book that the inclusion of a mystery seems unnecessary. I was more interested in the historical fiction aspects of this book covered in your review and Maisie's character. I'd love to read the parts about the Great War. The mystery part sounds weak, strange and forced....and the mimicking thing befuddles me!

I really enjoyed this review, Heather. I feel like I no have a much clearer idea of what this book's about. Now to think about if I want to read it

Wall-to-wall books said...

I am not a Mystery reader either, but I do love His. Fiction!
Good review, sorry it wasn't better for you.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

A book that is part interesting part uninteresting normally leaves the reader ambivalent. Great you took time to complete it. some would have given up.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Even though this series has its fans, I've never been inclined to pick it up. I am already pretty invested with too many series, so to pick up another would take some convincing...

bermudaonion said...

My mom loves this series, but I think it's more for the historical fiction aspect and the characters than it is for the mystery. How was your book club's discussion?

Meghan said...

I'm not a huge mystery fan, but I do tend to like them better when interwoven with historical fiction. Still, I haven't convinced myself to pick this series up, yet. I might try it and just think of it as historical fiction with a bit of mystery ... hmm. Maybe if I see it at the library.

Darlene said...

I wish you had liked this one more as I do have it to read. I'm not a huge fan of mysteries either but I enjoy them every so often.

Jenners said...

I've seen a lot of bloggers reading these books but I never had a good sense of what it was about. Thanks for filling me in. Not sure this is my cup of tea though … and her techniques do seem a bit flaky and unrealistic.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

The historical elements of this series are excellent, and the character of Maisie (and others) "matures" as the books move along.

I've read only the first four (so far), and will likely pick up the next few to have on hand as comfort reads.

I agree with your thoughts about Maisie's "sixth sense," Heather -- that emphasis on simply thinking about a solution (and willing it to come) bothered me, too!

An excellent and thoughtful review - you've shown the pros and cons for those wondering about trying a little Maisie (and reminded me - and others - what we've enjoyed about the books).

Oh, yes, please do let us know how your book group discussion goes!

Lisa said...

So many people rave about the Maisie Dobbs books. I kind of like mysteries but for some reason have never picked up any of these. Maybe in March - I think I'll do Mystery March again (although I really do have more than enough mystery books to work through already!).

Kailana said...

It wasn't until I moved on to the second book in this series that I actually started to like it. It took me a year or 2 to do that, though...

TheBookGirl said...

My husband is an avid mystery reader (that's really the only fiction he reads), and he is a big fan of this series. He did tell me when I told him about your review, that the series did improve with time for him, and that these books are definitely not really about the mystery as much as the characters and time period.

nomadreader said...

You know I love this series! I'm glad you took a chance and read it. If you want to try the second one, Birds of a Feather, it's among the best mysteries in the series (and the historical element to the mystery is pretty fascinating.)

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I've been meaning to start this series forever, and I have the first two on my shelf already. I've seen nothing but glowing reviews of these books, so I have to admit that it was nice to see a more balanced perspective coming from you, Heather. I loved reading your thoughts on this and you definitely inspired me to move it to the top of the pile - if nothing else, to see if I agree with your thoughts!

Aarti said...

I COMPLETELY agree. I did not like the mimicking at all and thought it was ridiculous how much she read into the "feelings" she had when she slouched her shoulders.

Jules said...

Thanks for the in-depth review. I've see the book around a few times, but I've always shied away from it because of the mystery elements - it always seemed heavy on the mystery solving side, and everything else in the background. I had no idea it went into had an element of the Great War like it does. I think I'd like everything but the mystery solving side of the book, so maybe I'll give it a try.

Marg said...

I think you are right about this book being set up for the series and therefore not so strong on the mystery aspect. Even the structure of the book seems to indicate that.

I will be reading the second book in the next couple of weeks so it will be interesting to see what my reaction to this was.

Jenny Girl said...

I also had mixed feelings with this book. Not sure if I would continue with the series either, but this one made me crave books about WWI. Great review.

Aths said...

I've heard mixed reviews of this one, so I'm still not sure if this book is for me. But I love that the historical setting of this book is very rich, so it seems like it is worth reading the book for that at least.

Kaye said...

Sorry this one didn't thrill you but I think the series does get better. I've read a few of them and enjoyed the time frame.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I love historical mysteries/fiction - it's a shame this one didn't quite work for you. I too get a bit frustrated when the mystery aspect of a book is too easily determined. Not sure if I'll get around to this one but parts of it sound like it's just up my alley.

Cath said...

I have been wanting to read this book for ages, mostly because the cover enthralls me. But it's getting mixed reviews that read a lot like yours...so I'll probably keep it on the back burner for a rainy day. Thanks for the comprehensive review!

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I've been tempted to start this series because of all the fans it seems to have. I'm not a huge mystery fan - I tend to enjoy a cozy from time to time but not a steady diet. I get bored. I may give this a try at some point. Thanks for sharing your take on it!

Ellen said...

Great review. I've seen so many mentions of the Maisie Dobbs books over the last year or so, but still haven't read them. Thanks for going into such detail about what worked and didn't work for you here. You've sold me on trying the first book, for the well-developed characters, the insight into WWI, the historical fiction aspects. I'm not sure that the mystery side of the story will work well for me (that sort of mimicking to better understand people sounds just...well, ridiculous), but I'm curious to see why so many people are reading and talking about these books.

And, glad I came across your blog, I'm looking forward to reading more of your reviews!

Anonymous said...

I viewed the first story was more character building than mystery. Once I got to the second book it became an addiction and so I have read them all including the newest release last month. I find that the mystery part of the series is realistic.

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