19 August 2007

Maisie Dobbs mysteries

One of Nancy's friends recommended Jacqueline Winspear's series of four mystery novels featuring Maisie Dobbs as the primary character. Nancy got one from the Northfield Library and read it. Then she went back for the other three.

That, along with little comments from Nancy as she read the books, led me to pick up one of them on a quiet evening. I ended up reading two of the four: Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth.

Winspear invents commendably complex plots, but tells the stories in a plodding, detail-filled way. So, you should ask, "Why did you read all the way through two books?"

I read on because of the marvelous mood and setting that Winspear has created. The setting is London in 1930. Maisie Dobbs was a near frontline nurse in France during World War I (like Nancy's grandmother; that was a bit of a hook for Nancy). After the war, Maisie studied what we'd call forensic psychology and learned meditation from two important mentors. She worked as an investigative assistant for one of those men.

The war left Maisie's fiancee in a shell shocked catatonic stupor that we'd call extreme post traumatic stress disorder today. She "knew" that the world was dead to him, but her affections for the man he once was had persisted.

Maisie was a bit shell shocked herself by her wartime experiences and had a breakdown a decade after the war. As part of her recovery, she was casting off from her mentors, buying her own apartment, and establishing her own investigative consulting business. The depression is beginning to have terrible effects, but there were still people with money to hire others to find the graves of soldiers lost in The Great War or determine whether a brother's death had really been an accident.

Winspear's descriptions of London, southern England, and northern France are replete with details that drew me in as completely as any BBC Mystery movie. (And I would not be surprised to find these books translated into BBC films in the near future.)

The details are all there and Winspear does it all with words: from the dreadful fall London smogs that surrounded everyone as people lit their fires for warmth to shifting the claret red 1930 MG that Maisie drove; from the details about the death of a toddler from diphtheria to those about the clothing of an American who wanted to fit into London high society to those about an artist's retreat created from old railway carriages on a desolate beach in Dungeness.

I dabbled enough in archaeology to be fascinated by material culture and the understandings that come from studying artifacts and the details of their arrangements. Winspear is fascinated too. Plus, she adds sociological insights about post-World War I Britain, that, for example, offered more opportunities for women than Victorian England had.

Winspear grew up in London and Kent, but she's certainly not old enough to remember the late 1920s-early '30s. I suppose if you looked carefully, you could still find a 1930 MG or a coin-operated gas meter to describe, but she wrote these books after moving to the USA. She gives thanks in her books to her "Cheef Resurcher (who knows who he is)" who helps recreate Maisie Dobb's world. I'd say his role is vital.

These books are time travel experiences. There are plots and story lines, but they're almost unnecessary for me. On another dreary, cool afternoon like this one, I'll be tempted to sit down with another of Winspear's books and safely travel back to the London of 75-80 years ago. If it sounds like a tempting. trip, check your library or local bookstore for a copy of one of Jacqueline Winspear's books.

(And if you are curious about the strange and lonely beach at Dungeness, use the satellite photos at Yahoo or Google maps to look it up. It's an amazing sight.)

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