Review: Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear

War changes everything.

In 1910, the world is a different place. England is still at peace, the aristocracy rules Britain’s social scene, and the life of Maisie Dobbs changes forever. At thirteen, young Maisie goes to work as a maid in the London household of Lady Rowan Compton, a wealthy suffragette and philanthropist.

Though she is poor, Maisie is rich in intelligence. One night, Lady Rowan finds Maisie reading in her library and not just reading but teaching herself Latin and philosophy. Recognizing that Maisie has an aptitude to do something useful with her life, Lady Rowan begins sponsoring private tutoring under her friend Dr. Maurice Blanche.

Before she knows it, Maisie is taking the entrance exams for Cambridge. When she is accepted, Maisie can hardly wait to share her joy with her family and friends (other servants in the house) but she is met with jealousy and criticism.

She will be attending Cambridge on scholarship and will never have a full degree bestowed on her (at the time women we not allowed formal recognition of their post secondary study), many in her life wonder what the use education was for a maid.

Despite the challenges she faces, Maisie attends Cambridge and is successful academically and socially. She becoming rather chummy with Priscilla Evernden–a wealthy girl who loves to push the boundaries of propriety. Priscilla introduces Maisie to the dashing RAMC doctor, Captain Simon Lynch at his going away party–the next day he will leave to join the fight in France. Though she finds him handsome and alluring, she knows he is well above her station.

But war is coming and with is change. Maisie knows a romance with Captain Lynch is far from practical as is her continued education at Cambridge so she enlists as a nurse and is shipped off to France where fate brings her and Captain Lynch together again.

While we are reading Maisie’s story, there is also a mystery afoot–in 1929. Flash forward ten years….Maisie is now an investigator opening her own detective agency in London. She maintained her apprenticeship under Maurice (who is also a detective and forensic doctor), and now with his retirement, Maisie became his replacement. From her little apartment office in London, she waits for clients. Finally he chance comes, a husband suspects his wife of having an affair.

She takes on the investigation that quickly turns into a more sinister operation. The wife is not having an affair but mourning to loss of a first love who returned from war broken–mentally and physically. On the surface his death appears straight forward but as Maisie looks into his life after the war and his service record she beings to uncover more than she bargained for….all leading back to a corrupt veteran convalescence home in Kent.

As the truth comes out, it teeters dangerously close to Maisie’s heart and her past….the time has come for her to solve the case, prove her self as an investigator, and make peace with the memories that haunt her. A nation struggling to heal itself, a woman struggling to heal herself….is Maisie truly ready to help others? The time to carry on is now and solving this case could be the case to her future.

I can wholeheartedly admit, I expected this book to be much different. The first book in Jacqueline Winspear’s series, is named after the female protagonist, Maisie Dobbs. For me the book read more like a novel than a mystery which is it’s  primary genre. As I am sure you have figured by now, I am a great fan of female sleuths such as Amelia Peabody and Mary Russell–I expected Maisie Dobbs to be much the same. I was surprised to find she was a little flat for me comparatively. Peabody and Russell are very lively detectives, I got the feeling Maisie was more ‘dead’ than sleuths that I am use to.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book or Maisie….I did, but not straight away. Winspear did an excellent job with the historic accuracy of the novel and the Great War…I was very impressed with her knowledge. She excelled in capturing the ‘feel’ of this time period….a nation was in great mourning after the war… a state of complete despair and ‘deadness’. Which is why I think she made Maisie more ‘flat’ and ‘dead’ that the traditional cozy protagonists–to impress upon the reader the mood of all the people in England after the war.

This book didn’t really carry on much of a mystery for me….it was simply investigation and fact following, not a true murder mystery…but in the end that didn’t really matter to me, I was satisfied with learning more about Maisie. Most of the book was the ‘back story’ of Maisie Dobbs…a necessary installment to any series but it usually follows on the heels of the first book, this was an unusual approach to a mystery series but one that was a welcome shake up to the norm.

I felt like the overall mood of the book was depressing and sad…the back story, the love story, the mystery… was all so sad. But this book snuck up on me and took me by surprise….

The Great War was a dark and sad time for England and all of the world…..the Great War changed everything. Winspear did such a good job with the history and content of the story that the reader couldn’t help but feel sucked into the despair of a nation and the characters in the book. Their losses became the readers, the mood of the book over takes the reader….but in the end there is the possibility of hope. That is how I knew that this series would be good.

I enjoyed this book, but I was not consumed by it until the final chapters….only then could I fully appreciate the historic aspects, story, and feel of the characters and book. The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating was that I expected a mystery, not a historic novel. I was really looking for more detective works and a murder mystery involving her sleuthing skills….I was disappointed in that, but it looks like the future books promise more mystery and detection.

I did love that this book had a Downton Abbey flair to it….the maid turned detective, the downstairs staff, the Great War backdrop….the ushering in of a new era, the women’s suffrage movement….if you like Downton Abbey and are looking for something to quench your desire for more Downton, then this is going to be the series for you. I will add it to my Project Downton list!

The promise of hope and moving on makes me want to keep reading the series and makes me want to believe in Maisie as an admirable protagonist. Her struggle to move on with her life is what I think will make this series exciting….the journey. I love books about a journey.

Now that we have the background on the sleuth, I think it will be riveting to read about where her new life takes her. My prediction for the next books….Maisie will come alive and be the charismatic protagonist I know she has in her soul to be and I would be willing to wager that I will like her more and more as the books go on. I love being won over by a character.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear

  • Kindle Edition
  • Published (first published June 1st 2003)
  • ASIN B004J4XA6E

This book counts toward: Death by Gaslight Reading Challenge

Recommendation: 3.5 out of 5 (a novel masquerading as a mystery with a strong, moving historic back story. A promising mystery series)

Genre: Historic fiction, mystery

Memorable lines/quotes: 

Amid the tales, the smokescreens, and the deceptive mirrors of life’s unsolved mysteries, the truth resides, waiting for someone to enter its sanctum, then leave, without quite closing the door behind them. That is when the truth may make its escape (52)

Coincidence was a messenger sent by truth (205)

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