When we first meet Maisie Dobbs, it is 1929, and she is opening up her London office for the very first time. Maisie, a young woman of about 30, is going into business as a private investigator, thanks to the tutelage of her mentor, Maurice Blanche, and the sponsorship of her patroness, Lady Rowan.
Maisie is an extremely intelligent woman, reserved by nature, strikingly attractive — and it’s immediately apparent that this is a person who has been hurt deeply in her lifetime. That doesn’t stop Maisie, though. She is more than ready when her first client walks through her door, hiring her to investigate his wife’s long afternoons away from home and to determine if she’s being unfaithful.
What Maisie discovers is not infidelity, but yet another lost soul still bearing the wounds of the Great War that ended ten years earlier. As Maisie pursues the trail of clues, her memories of her own wartime experiences come flooding back, demanding to be faced after all this time.
Maisie Dobbs is constructed around a mystery — who is the man whose grave the client’s wife cries over, and why does his gravestone list only his first name? The solution to this case leads Maisie back into the world of wounded soldiers and the terrible sacrifices and pain suffered by those who made it back home.
At the heart of the book lies Maisie’s own story. As her investigation begins to relate to the war, the center third of the book shifts scene and time and takes us back to Maisie’s teen years, when she works as a housemaid in Lady Rowan’s home. Maisie’s eagerness to learn leads her to an education sponsored by Lady Rowan, eventually entering college at Cambridge before the harsh reality of war causes her to change path.
Maisie abandons her college studies and enrolls in nursing school, ultimately training as a battlefield nurse and getting sent to a field hospital on the frontlines in France. I won’t go into too much detail, other than to say that Maisie’s experiences there lead to a tragic loss that has haunted her ever since. And in investigating the case of the soldier’s grave, Maisie is finally forced into confronting her sad, painful history.
I picked up this book not knowing what to expect. I had heard of the Maisie Dobbs series, and thought this first book would be a more or less straightforward detective story. What really impressed me about Maisie Dobbs is how deep and layered the story is. While Maisie is indeed an investigator, the setting and the time period are gateways into an examination of the horrors and tragedies of the terrible losses suffered during World War I — and the ongoing pain and suffering experienced by those who came home to face a lifetime of disfigurement and isolation.
Through Maisie’s thoughts, we come to feel the terrible depth of the tragedy as experienced on a very personal level, and yet there’s also hope. While Maisie carries emotional wounds that will always be with her, she’s also creating a new life in a new era, using her brains and her inner strength to face life on her own terms.
The audiobook narrator, Rita Barrington, does a lovely job of capturing Maisie’s inner dialogue, as well as voicing the people in her life. She does an excellent older, aristocratic voice for Lady Rowan, and a cheeky, working class voice for Maisie’s assistant Billy. Even while narrating conversations between multiple characters, it wasn’t hard to follow or to figure out who was talking at any given time. I liked the clarity and sweetness of Maisie’s voice, and the gentleness with which she speaks to all, especially to wounded soldiers and others in need of her care.
According to Goodreads, there are 11 Maisie Dobbs novels currently in print, with a 12th scheduled for release in 2016. I don’t really know where the series will go from here: Will it be a more traditional mystery series, with a new case forming the focal point of each book? Will Maisie’s connections to the war continue to inform the storylines? I suppose I could read the synopses of the next few books in the series, but really, I’d rather just wait and find out for myself.
I’m quite sure that I’ll continue with this series, which has such a well-written start in this first book. The emotional depths of this novel make it an affecting and throught-provoking read. There’s something about WWI fiction that is utterly compelling and tragic, and I found myself very much enthralled by the character of Maisie Dobbs and her fascinating life. Hearing the voices of Maisie and the other characters, as portrayed in the audiobook, made the experience even richer, and I look forward to listening to the 2nd book as soon as possible.
Title: Maisie Dobbs
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Narrator: Rita Barrington
Publication date: January 1, 2003
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 1 minute
Printed book length: 309 pages
Genre: Historical fiction; crime/mystery series