22 August 2012

Once again, Maisie Dobbs

The last couple times I read a Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear, I almost despaired of reading another really good one. One of the books I read was more a romance novel than a mystery. The other, unexpectedly, neglected lots of detail and reality. It's been a year, and I was tempted by nostalgia and picked up Elegy for Eddie from the new books shelf at the library.

I'm glad I did.

There is a noticeable lack of historical detail in this new book compared to the earlier ones. Maybe that's because the author has moved from London to Los Angeles. But, it might just seem that way because the coin-operated gas fire places and 1930's fashions are no longer such novelties to me. However, I complained about the reliability of Maisie Dobbs' 1930 MG. The reputation of those cars is/was that they practically required a ride-along mechanic or a driver skilled in small repairs. But until this book, Maisie never experienced a break down. This time the car broke down while parked behind the city home of her lover, who had to call in a mechanic to get it running again.

I really was unhappy with the romance of The Mapping of Love and Death. Well, this time Maisie's romantic relationship is still around, but Maisie is obviously doing some inner work to come to terms with her desires for independence, her desires for the man in her life, and the contradictions between her working class background and her elevation to high society. It wasn't just her smarts and skills, but the generosity of her former employer and her late mentor that brought her wealth and position. Part of the work Maisie has to do is figure out how to best use her good fortune to help people around her without becoming a benevolent dictator.

And the story around which this is told fits with Maisie's inner struggles. Working class people and newly rich industrialists are involved. A young man, Eddie, who we might now call an autistic savant dies in what appears to be an industrial accident. However, there are suspicions that the accident might have been part of the factory owner's struggle to keep unions out of his plant. Eddie had a way with horses and the costermoners (fruit and vegetable sellers who made the rounds of London neighborhoods) regularly called on him to deal with sickly and unruly horses. Since Maisie's dad was once a constermonger, a local group calls on Maisie to sort out the questions surrounding Eddie's death.

Ah, but the resistance to unionization might not be the real intrigue. Eddie, the savant, was also able to sketch things in great detail from seemingly casual glances. (See the story about Stephen Wiltshire.) What did Eddie see? And was all this connected to the death of a crusading journalist who bought Eddie drinks once in awhile? And why did the bully who was suspected in Eddie's death also kill himself? Or did he? And was the reporter's death an accident?

I thought it was a well-written, complex mystery. I also enjoyed the fact that Maisie Dobbs once again had an inner life that was interesting. In earlier books she struggled with PTSD from her years as a front line nurse in France. Now, she was working through more fortunate, but still difficult, changes in her life.

I'm glad I didn't let my disappointments of a couple earlier novels discourage me. If you're looking to begin reading about Maisie Dobbs, I do recommend starting with the earlier books. And you have my permission to skip the couple that preceeded Elegy for Eddie. (See the Wikipedia entry for Jacqueline Winspear to see the books and publications dates.)

Have you read Elegy for Eddie or another of Winspear's books? How did you react?

 Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

Jacqueline Winspear, speaks at Politics & Prose
Bookstore about Elegy for Eddie and writing


Lori K. said...

I'm on book 5 (An Incomplete Revenge) and love the Maisie Dobbs stories. I commute to work each day, so I listen to lots of books on tape and these stories have been some of my favorites. I'm wondering if the things you didn't like about the intervening books before Elegy for Eddie will be just the things I do like...I'll keep you posted as I progress through the stories. Thanks for a great blog!

Ken Wedding said...

Please, let us know how you react to the next books.