Thursday, October 6, 2011
Publisher Format: Penguin Books (2004), Paperback, 320 pages;--- also audio - BBC Audiobooks America, 10 hours
Narrator: Rita Barrington
Subject: women's role in 1st half of 20th century; gentle detective work
Setting: English countryside
Series: Maisie Dobbs
Genre: cozy mystery
Source: public library
Many of our patrons here in small town Maine are absolutely delighted with the character of Maisie Dobbs. I tried other 'classic English' mystery writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie earlier this year, but I found the writing stilted, the mysteries quaint, the font too cramped, and the pace way too slow. So why oh why was I so enchanted with Maisie Dobbs?
In this first of a many volumned series, I thought I was going to have another "deja vù" moment as Maisie meandered through the grand opening of M. Dobbs, Trade and Personal Investigations in the first chapter and the ensuing first case. She is asked by a well-to-do gentleman to ascertain where his wife goes when she leaves the house for the day. He wants to know whether she is being unfaithful. We see Maisie following the lady in question to a cemetery, we are presented with Maisie's questions about whose grave she's visiting and why, and only then do we get a flashback into her earlier life and pick up the pace - a story within the story which takes up a good chunk of the book.
Maisie is placed "into service" at an early age, where her insatiable curiosity and keen intellect are noticed by her employer Lady Rowan Compton, a brave suffragette do-gooder who places Maisie under the tutelage of one Dr. Maurice Blanche. Her education progresses, she's admitted to Cambridge (quite a coup for a woman in 1915 and quite an eye-opening experience for Maisie). As England becomes more entrenched in the war, Maisie determines to do her duty, and enlists as a nurse trainee, lying about her age to do so. After meeting the love of her life during her training in England, she is shipped off to France to work in a field hospital. When she returns, she is a much more mature, wise and worldly woman who goes on to complete her education and decides to use her formidable deductive reasoning skills to help others. Thus (and I admit that for me it was a giant leap) the opening of the detective agency. I'll not spoil the story by revealing the outcome of the romance.
Of course, one must remember that the whole time Maisie is solving her puzzles, her mentors Lady Rowan and Maurice Blanche are there in the background as safety nets. But in spite of that, I found the story fascinating if for no other reason than it provided a crystal clear look into the life and culture of the era: the changing roles of women, the total devastation of the European male population -either in outright death, or lingering wounds both physical and mental. Nowhere do we hear the words PTSD mentioned, but with the insight gained in the 21st century, we are certainly able to see its foreshadowing a hundred years ago.
Maisie is a gutsy, bright, determined and lovable protagonist, and I can see why my readers like her so much. I'm certainly going to check out the next two or three to see if her character develops enough to merit all the hype.
A note on formats: I both read and listened to this one-- Rita Barrington's clear, crisp British accent lent a great deal of authenticity to the audio version. This is one series that does well in audio. The plot is not so convoluted and there are not too many characters to track, so it lends itself to a gentle afternoon of knitting by the fire while ear-reading a good story. A definite addition to my list of series to follow.