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August in the Reader's Den: Maisie Dobbs, Week 1
Welcome to the August edition of the Reader's Den. The month of August fairly screams "beach read!" There's nothing like a good mystery to banish the workday world from your vacationing brain while you are relaxing on the beach.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear is a historical mystery set in London between the World Wars and features a young female sleuth. Maisie Dobbs is a private investigator and psychologist, not a common career for a woman in London in 1929. Moreover, she conducts her practice using psychiatric principles learned from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche. This includes mimicking the physical mannerisms of her clients to intuit the source of their psychological stress. She also practices some Eastern meditation techniques learned from an Asian teacher and friend, Basil Khan.
Dobbs's life has been unusual from the start. Gifted with a good brain and a high degree of intellectual curiosity, she rises above her working class origins and is admitted to Girton College in Cambridge at age 17, in the autumn of 1914 after the start of World War I. As war casualties mount, she leaves the university and becomes a nurse at a battlefield hospital in France in 1916. When the novel opens, the war has been over for almost 11 years, but its psychological and economic impacts are still felt, and the Great Depression is grimly bearing down on London.
One of the wonderful things about this book is the rich historical details of daily life in England during the period immediately before the Great War through the period between the World Wars. From clothing to transportation to what goes into running a household, Winspear smoothly incorporates the details into the story line. She is also adept at describing the lasting psychological and social effects of The Great War on England's culture, its post-war economic woes, the increasingly blurred boundaries between classes, and how the loss of a generation continues to resonate with the survivors.
Another wonderful thing about this book is the plot line. Not only is it interesting, it also complements the historical aspects of the book and the underlying motivation of the main characters. The book is divided into three nearly equal parts. The first section introduces Dobbs in 1929 and sets up her first case. At first, it appears to be a typical case of a jealous husband who fears his wife is cheating on him. During her investigation, Dobbs finds that the wife's extramarital involvement is with a former crush who was severely injured in the war. When he came home to England, he became a recluse to avoid the pitying stares of strangers. Since his death a few years ago, the wife has been secretly visiting his grave. Something about the wife's story of the injured veteran causes Dobbs to question the circumstances surrounding his death. The middle section is a flashback telling Dobbs's story from 1910 to 1917. Her character is idiosyncratic enough to require a detailed back story, and it does not detract from the resolution of the case in section three.
Winspear cleverly leaves certain parts of Dobbs's life story untold. Dobbs is a complex character who has learned self-control the hard way. While she is helping her clients by solving their cases, she is also confronting and healing the broken parts in her own life. We are privileged to travel that road with her and learn her carefully guarded secrets along the way.
This is Winspear's first novel and the first novel in the series, published in 2003. It was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2003. The eighth novel in the series, A Lesson in Secrets, was published in March 2011.
Get a copy of Maisie Dobbs and start reading! Discussion questions will be posted next week, but feel free to begin commenting this week!