If I had known quarantine was coming, I would have made some different choices. For one, I would not have ordered Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light as my spring break read, since my focus would be far too fractured to get myself back into that Thomas Cromwell and the Tudors mindset. For another, I would not have assigned Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio to my intro students as our major readings for the back half of the semester. I went into lockdown and immediately recorded ten lectures on hell in ten days. What was I thinking?
I could not, of course, really change up the assigned readings for my students, but I could choose some different material for my off-duty hours (scant as they were). So, on impulse, I bought an e-book of the first book of Jacqueline Winspear’s long-running mystery series when it came on special, and started my still-ongoing adventure through the world of Maisie Dobbs.
It seemed like the right call: period mysteries have a certain comforting familiarity to them, and Winspear’s offering didn’t seem too bleak or too gritty, and that was exactly what I needed after hours of writing and recording lectures on Inferno. The setup is fairly simple: it’s 1929 in London, and the eponymous heroine is setting up her own solo office as “private inquiry agent,” or, in other words, a detective. We learn little by little that Maisie, while brilliant, came from a poor, working-class family, and by luck and hard work (and the mentorship of French scholar and detective Maurice Blanche), ended up studying at Girton College, Cambridge when WWI broke out, at which point she promptly lied about her age and followed her best friend to the front lines as a nurse.
But the mystery itself is a clever bait and switch. The case that Maisie is hired to investigate–a man concerned that his wife is cheating on him–is only a means of entry into the larger story. The wife is in fact not cheating, but is still grieving over her first love who was disfigured during the war and died afterwards, and her secret rendezvous are in fact only visits to lay flowers on his grave, a grave that bears only his first name. Maisie informs the husband of his wife’s fidelity, and, in a twist on the genre, counsels him on how to draw his wife from the suffering of the past so that together they can once more find happiness in the present. And with that tidily wrapped up in the first quarter of the novel, Maisie gets on to the real matter at hand: investigating the property where to which this disfigured soldier retired and then died under mysterious circumstances, a place that on its surface seems to provide refuge to traumatized veterans, but might, in fact, be exploiting (or worse, murdering) them.
Shame, isn’t it? That we only like our heroes out in the street when they are looking their best and their uniforms are ‘spit and polished,’ and not when they’re showing us the wounds they suffered on our behalf.
Maisie is a deeply likable heroine. Like the men whose deaths she investigates, she too bears her own trauma from the war, and Winspear smoothly interweaves Maisie’s university and wartime experience with her present-day work to show us how our detective has been shaped by her past. The result is a mystery with a bit more emotional weight and resonance to it, but also guided by Winspear’s decidedly gentle, calm narration, which matches Maisie’s own sensitive, empathetic nature. As her mentor told her, merely solving a mystery isn’t enough: “The story takes up space as a knot in a piece of wood. If the knot is removed, a hole remains. We must ask ourselves, how will this hole that we have opened be filled? The hole, Maisie, is our responsibility.”
And Maisie does feel responsibility for figuring out what happened at the farm, because the son of her benefactor Lady Rowan is also a traumatized veteran who is tempted to retreat to that place; the stakes quickly become personal for her, and with the help of her assistant, Billy Beale (a former military sapper), she goes to work uncovering the sad truth of what’s happening to these men.
It is most certainly a book that feels gentle, but Winspear neatly avoids being sentimental or treacly by keeping the trauma in focus–and yet also letting her characters be more than their trauma. She was, apparently, inspired to create the story by her grandfather’s own traumatic experience of PTSD, as well as a grandmother who worked in a munitions factory and was partly blinded in an explosion there. And she also allows Maisie to be a decidedly modern woman in a number of ways: she is well-educated in the most advanced (for the 1920s) investigative science and psychological research, and trained in meditation as a way of sorting through her intuitions and hunches.
Perhaps my one complaint is that Winspear tends to withhold from the reader whatever final bit of evidence helps Maisie to solve the mystery; it doesn’t quite feel like playing fair (and after listening to many episodes of Shedunnit, I know this goes against the Detection Club rules that Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers usually played by!) and it can be a touch frustrating to know that information is withheld from us to make Maisie seem a bit wiser and cleverer. Given how careful, compassionate, and intelligent Maisie is throughout the novel, it’s just not quite necessary to withhold in this fashion; even if I figured things out in advance of the reveal, I wouldn’t be enjoying the novel any less, given Winspear’s thoughtful incorporation of other, weightier themes than mere puzzle-solving.
It was, in the end, exactly the novel I needed to give myself a little break from the grind of my toppled-over life. If you find yourself in need of a clever mystery with surprising depths, give it a try.