Hi! New here, kind of. I’ve been reading reviews here for a few years (thanks for the Jane Steele and Act Like It recommendations!) and signed up a few times but never got around to writing out any reviews. This year though! Here I am! So, first review… is it normal for you regular reviewers to finish a book and think, sure, that was fine, I liked it well enough, but then when you actually write the review you get really angry and annoyed by the book? Birds of a Feather, ladies and gentlemen.
As you can probably tell, I had some issues with this book, the second in the Maisie Dobbs series. I read the first book and liked it well enough, and I picked up this book because I found interesting both the premise of the series—a 1930s detective solving crimes in a world still processing the psychological ramifications of World War I—and the premise of this particular mystery, which centers on the disappearance of the lonely daughter of a wealthy business owner. I’d impulse-bought some of the later books in the series when the Kindle versions were cheap, so I figured I should probably catch up before getting to those. Fortunately, this one came from the library.
Issue #1: Maisie Dobbs herself. I tend to go through a lot of cozy mystery audiobooks when I’m multitasking, but I shy away from ones involving bakeries, cats, or supernatural elements, which eliminates something like 80% of the genre. This series, on its face, has none of those things, but the descriptions of Maisie Dobbs’ logic and powers of observation definitely border on psychic. For example, when she misses something her subconscious apparently noticed, Maisie feels a physical force keeping her from leaving the room. And when she first goes into the bedroom of the woman who has disappeared, she feels an overwhelming sadness and loneliness. Just a vibe she gets, which she then treats as a fact of the case.
Maisie is also written to be somewhat distant from the people around her—a Sherlock Holmes influence, maybe?—but it really ends up just alienating the reader from the character. There’s a reason Sherlock’s stories are told from Watson’s perspective—we need an audience surrogate. Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, definitely doesn’t do the trick; he’s fine, but his story takes a weird turn halfway through and he isn’t particularly relatable.
As with many cozy mysteries, Maisie is smarter than the police investigating the crime. In one infuriating scene, she asks the detective on the case to leave her alone in the room of the crime scene, the body still there—and he says yes?! The narrator notes that he knows she was the one who discovered the body, so if she was going to tamper with the crime scene she would’ve done it before calling the police. And then, of course, she proceeds to tamper with the crime scene. She picks up a piece of evidence—a mysterious object that isn’t revealed until two-thirds into the book, meaning the audience can’t do much detective work on its own—and takes it from the scene without showing it to the detective. And then she gets frustrated when the detective arrests the wrong person.
Maisie ultimately solves the crime—surprise!—and has to go undercover to prove it, tempting the murderer into killing her too. I’m not usually a fan of the undercover investigation trope, but at least it usually engenders some tension; not so here. She’s literally just waiting around in a room trying to see if someone is going to try to poison her.
The resolution of the novel also bugs me, so, SPOILER TIME: the culprit is a mother who murders three women (and an attempted fourth, the disappearing daughter) because when the women were teenagers more than a decade before, they passed out feathers during WWI and made the mother’s sons feel guilty enough to join up and head off to war, where they died or came back with a brain injury. The surviving woman expresses guilt about passing out the feathers, and she probably should because the particular motivation she expressed was awful (since we’re in spoiler territory already: she wanted to get her older brother out of the way by goading him into going off to war so that her dad would love her while he was gone, even though she loved her brother and he never did anything to her), but this seems like a case of someone blaming women for what men choose to do. But those poor men! The women made them feel bad one day! They can’t be responsible for their actions! Also, the story even notes that they probably would’ve all been drafted anyway. And it seems like the author tries to justify the murderer’s motivation as reasonable. The characters’ response to the reveal was basically sympathy for the mother because she had lost her sons in the war and now she is sad. But also she’s a serial killer who killed three people with poison and defiled their corpses by stabbing them a bunch of times in anger???
My two-star rating is partly one of optimism. I saw several reviews on Goodreads that expressed surprise at how frustrating pieces of this book are because the later books in the series are so much better. I’m going to skip ahead to those books (I have #8, #9, and #12) and see if that’s true. Fingers crossed!