Maisie Dobbs - Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs has just set up her own practice as something between a private investigator and a psychologist--a problem-solver, in the broadest sense. It's not easy for a professional woman to gain traction in post-WWI England, but fortunately for Maisie, influence in high places combined with a little deception quickly land her a client. Her first case is the most clichéd of clichés: a husband who believes his wife may be cheating on him.  However, as Maisie begins to investigate the wife's comings and goings, she soon finds that the only other man in the wife's life is a ghost from the past.  As Maisie begins to trace down leads, she soon finds herself confronting not only a suspicious organization and a troubled collection of characters, but also some ghosts of her own.

 

Maisie Dobbs is certainly a well-written and well-researched book, and I can see why it garnered praise.  However, for me, it just turned out to be a bad fit. Here's the short version: the book hit me wrong, in all aspects of the trifecta: structure, characters, and theme. Of course, since I never leave well enough alone, I'm going to enumerate the causes of my dissatisfaction.

 

The first is the structure.  The book is listed as a mystery and has won various mystery awards, so I went in assuming that I would be reading a mystery.  Instead, after a rather contrived opening in which we are introduced to the marvellous Maisie, the story moves into Maisie's past and we are treated to her entire life story from a tender age in one massive hunk of uninterrupted text that comprises well over half of the book.  Then the author apparently realises that there was supposed to be a mystery, abruptly cuts off the reminiscences, and brings the utterly un-mysterious "mystery" to a close.  I'm not opposed to historical novels, but I do feel a little miffed that the mystery takes up such a small a portion of the book. I also think the flashbacks could have been woven into the story rather than  plonked down in one massive chunk.

 

My second complaint is against Winspear's handling of the war, and I'm going to admit here and now that my objections are utterly unfair.  Basically, it comes down to this: while Winspear clearly did a lot of research and put a great deal of detail into the nitty-gritty of life in the trenches, I would never mistake her book for one written by someone who actually lived through the war.

 

And now for my massive chunk of reminiscence. (Take that, Maisie!)

My first exposure to WWI, as far as I remember, was through L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside.  The novel captures Montgomery's experiences as a woman who sent her men off to the "war to end all wars," who had to wait at home in peaceful Canada, scrimping and saving and helping with the Women's Auxiliary, all the while, dying for news, while her men were mutilated and annihilated at the front.  Montgomery's story is ultimately uplifting because she truly believed that it was a war to combat pure evil, that they were fighting against baby-bayoneting fiends, that it was a war whose conclusion would usher in a golden age of peace for the world. 

Of course, then I went and asked my mother about it, and she quickly corrected any misapprehension that WWI had actually achieved something.  She even explained the ultimately disastrous Treaty of Versailles.  Rilla is powerful because of the sheer force of belief behind it, and somehow even more poignant because that faith is betrayed. Montgomery herself could not face the outbreak of the second world war and took her own life. 

So WWI holds a very specific meaning for me: it was a war in which propaganda and posturing destroyed the youth of an entire generation, where countless people lost their lives--not because of some relentless evil, but because of nationality and border disputes.  For when the war was over and all the men returned from the front, a terrible proportion were injured, gassed, suffering from shell-shock, confronted with the fact that the war had not, in fact, brought about a final peace.  This, in turn, created the empty frivolity of the twenties and thirties, the sense that nothing mattered, that life was unbearable without fast music and alcohol to steer the mind away from the past.  This brings us to the hard-eyed (if humorous) Tommy and Tuppence, the outwardly frivolous and inwardly shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey. Even Tolkien's books are seeped in the experiences of a soldier of WWI.

 

To get to the point, I just don't believe in Maisie's postwar world. While many of Winspear's characters feel realistic--I thought her portrayal of Billy, the old soldier who walks the city at night when he cannot sleep, was poignant and perfect-- I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing.  The characters' war stories are often heartbreaking, but they are flattened into superficiality by subsequent events. Throughout the story, Maisie and the other characters voice their surprise at the way that some people have failed to "get over" the war.  Maisie repeatedly thinks this: despite her mouthed sympathies and understanding, she keeps questioning why people don't "get over" a war that damaged or destroyed over a third of the soldiers from her country. She wonders why the woman in the initial case is still grieving; she wonders why the war vet James isn't able to "get on" with his life; she wonders why the disfigured vets don't "get over" their disfigurements and go find their places in the world.  Maisie uses lame little bits of new-agey pop psychology to provide pat answers or distractions that leave each person happier for having told their tale.  Personally, I think there's something wrong with a person who can be pulled out of war-loss-induced depression by pretty carpets.  With the help of Maisie's "healing" and "counselling," several characters are able to shake off their grief with an ease that I found rather off-putting.  An then there's the "mystery" itself.

First, she "succeeds" by singing a song about herself as nurse and "red red rose," which, first off, is heading pretty far down the Creepy Egocentrism Trail.   Second, she stops a murder by singing and getting everyone to join in with her.  I didn't realise I was watching the Disney channel.  Second stage of rescue, is, of course, touching the madman on the breast, at which point he breaks down into tears.  Lord 'elp us. (All of this, of course, occurs while her poor Cockney sidekick is choking to death offstage)

 

I liked the way that Winspear explored the way that terrible disfigurement could affect a war veteran, how losing one's face could become tantamount to losing one's identity.  But then we discover that all the horrifically injured vets were dupes of a mad fool, happy to go along with his plan of barbarous murder.  They all end up committed to various asylums. What a happy ending!  What depth of understanding for the physically impaired!  Winspear seeks to create a world in which soldiers are tools and the disfigured are animals, and then goes right on ahead and has her characters play up to the very stereotypes that one would hope that she would fight.

(show spoiler)

 Long story short, I think I'm unfair to Maisie Dobbs: It would be nearly impossible to write a book that conveyed as much complexity, as much emotion, as the experiences of the men and women who lived through it.  Winspear may have failed against that lofty target, but it does not imply her book is without merit.

 

However, the biggest problem for me was Maisie herself.  Most of the cast are stock characters--the helpful Cockney sidekick, the dictatorial but kindly suffragette benefactress, the darling and hardworking father, the sad death of the beautiful mother, etc, etc, and Maisie herself doesn't precisely break the mold. In terms of personality, she reminds me of a Victorian heroine--think A Little Princess or one of Alcott's soppier numbers.  Maisie is sickeningly intelligent, driven, and just all-around perfect.  She is so "uniquely gifted" that she is able to keep up two full-time jobs--maid work and advanced study--without dropping a stitch; she's utterly humble and forebearing to all those mean little people around her; she is instinctively trusted and loved by all.  Maisie actively "games" the people around her by using various (anachronistic) psychological tricks such as coordination, distraction, and restatement.  However, I found the enumeration of these tactics to be incredibly off-putting: as far as I can tell, it's only sociopaths and us socially inept folks who try to turn social interactions into a science like that.  A genuine people person--and a person truly interested in others--wouldn't be thinking through such games; she'd be focusing on the speaker.  Oh--and if you know about me and my tendency to run down the Mary Sue checklist, I forgot to point out that she has jet-black hair and startlingly blue eyes that are occasionally referred to as violet.  OK, fine, so the heroine is a little over the top.  It actually works reasonably well in a certain genre of fiction of the time period--or at least of about thirty years before, and it certainly matches up nicely with the purple prose.  Believe it or not, Sue-ward tendencies were not my major complaint against Maisie. 

Said complaint is rather spoilerific, and, gentle reader, please expect rather a lot of profanity.

I was utterly appalled by the "touching" ending.  Maisie abandoned her true love fo TWELVE EFFING YEARS because she just couldn't "cope" or something? She was supposedly a nurse, a person who cared for the injured, and yet she was so self-centered that she couldn't even bring herself to give comfort to her true love for TWELVE EFFING YEARS?

It's very clear that while he can't speak, he is conscious and able to understand.  She is a nurse.  She has a freaking degree in psychology.  And yet because of her own fricking twelve-year stint of feminine vapours, she leaves the man she would have married to rot, alone and unacknowledged, in an asylum? Her refusal to visit him is incredibly, ridiculously cruel; it's tantamount to an accusation that his disfigurement and injuries leave him as something less than human, something that she can no longer love or even deign to give comfort to.  And yet this absolutely horrifically selfish situation is wrapped up as if it's all a grand old learning and healing experience for Maisie.  How about her effing lover?  How "healing" was all that for him?

Personally, I find her actions unacceptable and unforgivable, and the fact that the narrator apparently saw no need for real repentance didn't precisely mollify me.

(show spoiler)


Long story short, I found Maisie to be less than amazing, and I rather regret it. I really wish that I had been able to enjoy the book; I would have liked to continue in the series.  However, certain aspects really pushed my buttons, so I think I'll leave Maisie to her adventures in peace.