This is a murder mystery, but it also includes perceptive social history and more. Its setting is 1929 Great Britain, eleven years after the end of the Great War. Winspear flashes to 1910 to provide the crucial backstory. The sleuth is Maisie Dobbs, P.I., but P.I. stands for Psychologist-Investigator not the customary Private Investigator.
Maisie Dobbs is about as far from Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple as one can imagine except, perhaps, in her intuitive abilities. At thirty-two, she is younger than the always spinsterish Miss Marple. Dobbs is the daughter of a working-class costermonger (fruit and vegetable seller) rather than of a “gentleman.” Dobbs has been in service as a maid of all work, but through aristocratic patronage, a brilliant Henry Higgins-ish tutor, and her astonishing intellect, she qualifies for Girton College Cambridge and matriculates as the war begins in 1914. Later, she becomes a nurse in a triage casualty unit on the Western Front where she falls in love with a trauma surgeon.
After the war she returns to Cambridge and then joins her tutor in the P.I. business. As we catch up with her in 1929, she has struck out on her own, has hung up her P.I. shingle, and is about to get her first case. So far there is not a tea cozy, vine covered cottage, or knitting needle in sight. Maisie Dobbs, a liberated woman, has to work for a living, unlike Miss Marple who has independent means. True to her psychological sensitivity, however, Dobbs is aware that she herself has unresolved issues, just as do other survivors of the Great War. Her realization about herself and other survivors is the crucial node around which the story’s multiple mysteries revolve.
Although the novel is set and solved in 1929, it is intimately connected to the savagery of the war and its wounded survivors. Some wounds don’t bleed. Dobbs’ own wounds are both of the bleeding and non-bleeding varieties. They inform her personal mystery in the story. We are introduced to them deliberately and artfully by Winspear. The central murder mystery plot is heavily dependent on the non-bleeding variety of wounds, hence the importance of Psychologist in her professional title.
While working on her first solo case (which she solves without fuss), Dobbs discovers a tombstone inscribed only with Vincent, a first name, no last name, no birthdate, no date of death. When she discovers much later that the mystery of the unadorned first name on the tombstone is connected to a murder mystery, the reader has as much of an “aha” experience as does she. Winspear skillfully drops breadcrumbs to lead her detective and readers along the path towards realizing multiple murders have been committed and then solving the mystery of them. Dobbs got there before I did.
Maisie Dobbs is Winspear’s debut mystery novel. In the first few pages, Maisie seems to be heavily focused on fashion, noting with exquisite detail, the apparel from hat to toe that outfits Celia Davenham, a woman she follows for several days. I found these details distracting and off-putting but perhaps Winspear was only suggesting that Maisie Dobbs has exquisite observational abilities, akin to Sherlock Holmes—the master of the telling detail. In any case, Maisie has a full detective tool kit including modern psychological and Eastern meditation techniques. Winspear has created a winsome and winning detective with Maisie. Now that I’ve read the first, I will undoubtedly read some or all of the remaining Maisie Dobbs novels. – Neal Ferguson
Also available by Jacqueline Winspear: Birds of a Feather; Pardonable Lies; A Lesson in Secrets; Messenger of Truth; The Mapping of Love and Death; An Incomplete Revenge; Elegy for Eddie; Among the Mad; The Care and Management of Lies.