Sunday, 23 August 2009

Sunday Salon - Maisie Dobbs, an extraordinary mystery

The Sunday Salon.com

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear is the first in a series of now 5 books featuring Maisie Dobbs. In Book one, she opens her detective agency in 1929, 11 years after the Great War has ended. But the Great War is still very much alive in the minds and hearts and bodies of everyone who was at the Front, and this book - and I suspect the series - is about that effect. Maisie herself served as a nurse on the front, and most of the characters - the victims, the soldiers, the doctors, the killer - also served on the front. The War shaped everything after, a cataclysmic event that Winspear writes about evocatively, and yet, this is not a book about the war at all. It's a mystery, about why a survivor of the war, after he goes to a retreat for soldiers wounded in the War, is found dead, supposedly by his own hand. And yet, it isn't even the sister who asks for help, but the husband of the sister who is grieving and who spends part of her day at her brother's cemetary, unable to let go.

This mystery is about grief, and about change, but it's also about so much more. Maisie herself is an utterly fascinating character - strong, determined, focussed, and very very intelligent. She works her way up from being the lowest maid in a Lord's house, to going to Cambridge, and becoming a nurse, before opening her own detective agency. Her detective teacher is a marvel also, Maurice Blanche, who teaches Maisie so many things, among the most important, to sit still even when it's uncomortable, when asking a question, because asking the question is the important thing:
" I never want to learn that you 'don't know', Maisie, I want to know what you think the answer to the question is. The more it troubles you, the more it has to teach you. In time, Maisie, you will find that the larger questions in life share such behavior."

Isn't that a fascinating way to see the development of an investigator? Ask questions. Ask more questions. He also teaches that the answer comes in many ways. We are never told how he has come by all his knowledge, but I see traces of Far East teachings as well as Jung, in what he tells Maisie.

The mystery is part of the book, and then Maisie's life as she developed as a person and into an investigator is also part of the book. There is a reason, but to give it would be to spoil the revelation of Maisie's character and how the Great War affected her.

If you want to try any mystery series this year, try this one. I'm already looking for the second one in the series. It's on my Christmas list for people I love this year. In other words, this is one of my top 10, I think, for this year. It's not often a book has me crying at two separate times, on the bus! This is a very moving book, a well-recreated look at how World War 1 shaped the years after it, and a very tragic mystery as well. We might do well to remember this, when we come to look back on this decade, and the war currently being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has, and will surely continue, to scar the world and wound so many lives. And in spite of the wounds that war leaves behind, and the psychological probings by Maisie, this book also has love and warmth at its heart, really loving relationships between Maisie and her father, Maisie and her mentor Maurice, Maisie and Billie Dodds, one of the thousands of soldiers whose lives she saved on the front, Maisie and Lady Rowan. It is also tender; Maisie doesn't hound her subjects, those she is asking questions of; her caring for the well-being of those she is ever so gently questioning - and how she gets the answers from them, is illuminating. There is no one like Maisie in the annals of detective fiction.

She's like a little bit of Hercule Poirot (although Maurice is more like him), a little bit Sherlock Holmes in her deductive reasoning and powers of observation, but to her, it'a normal way of being in the world. And lest you think she is all brain, she also falls in love.....

5/5 - except for the cover, which has to be one of the worst for a detective series, EVER. I honestly thought this was some Edwardian fiction (and thus utterly boring) so I only picked up it up because of Bride of the Book God, who is raving about the series, her posts books 4 and 5 here, and because someone else reviewed one of her books. I can't remember who - this is why I started my 'blogging books to get' journal! - so if you have reviewed Maisie Dobbs or any of the series, please let me know and I'll add your link. Someone out there beside Bride knows of this awesome series.......

Two extra things:
If I believed in hitting myself, I would be sporting a huge lump on my forehead right about now. I thought I had until midnight tonight to send my 5 posts for the next round of Blogger Appreciation Week Awards.....No, I discovered this morning when I opened my email, all ready to send my 5 posts today, that my deadline was last Friday at midnight. Yep, a great big lump right there....so my name sadly won't be going ahead (if the committee had chosen me), and for anyone who was going to vote for me, my humblest apologies. Obviously I should read more carefully rather than getting so excited I don't look at the date again! I will be casting my vote for other blogs, though!

And Bride has a post here, from today, that is continuing our deepening discussion about whether it's ok to use live people in fiction and probably/potentially/possibly fictionalize them too, without it being clear if they are fictionalized. I really do think it's okay to use people who lived, if they remain bound within who they were when they lived; that their interior life isn't made up of untrue things. I know, it sounds boring! It's not. As the schism deepens between those who believe it's fine to use real people and change their character somewhat in fiction, and those who don't believe this is fine, I think we are approaching something that is important in fiction, that's at the heart of why we read: telling a story, and what's permissable to use, and what needs to be created by the author. Let us know!!

Also, Bride has laid down the gauntlet by reviewing a book in the same post today - Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder by Gyles Brandreth - that uses real people as the main characters, and even though I'm against fictionalizing real people in a big way, the book sounds interesting! Darn it! Isn't life just full of quandries? Stay tuned to whether I give in and try reading the book, to whether more readers (that would be you, Gentle Reader!) weigh in on this interesting question, and to whether anyone else has read the same book and if they can say if Oscar Wilde and the other 'true' characters are true to life or not.

I leave you this fine Sunday with a final quote from Maisie Dobbs:
Maisie sat back on the bench and started to compose her questions. She would not struggle to answer the questions but would let them do their work.
"Truth walks toward us on the paths of our questions." Maurice's voice once again echoed in her mind. "As soon as you think you have the answer, you have closed the path and may miss vital new information. Wait awhile in the stillness, and do not rush to conclusions, no matter how uncomfortable the unknowing."

As I was writing that quote down, I began to apply it to our own debate, and so I'm taking it to heart. There is no right or wrong answer in using real people, but I do think there has to be respect and a clear line about saying - yes, he's fictionalized, no, he never acted that way, or I've tried to make it true to him as possible. I know that fiction is a marvellous way to come to understand ourselves and this wondrous universe we live in. I just wonder if it's some paucity of imagination, that we turn to real people more and more to write as fiction characters.

And - I have long been an admirer of Bride and her fabulously named blog, and normally we have very similar tastes, so I think this comes down to what can one live with in fiction? Interesting, isn't it?

Happy Sunday reading, everyone!

Other bloggers posts:
Bride of the Book God - Book 4
Bride of the Book God - Book Five
Word Lily: Maisie Dobbs
Word Lily: Birds of a Feather (Book 2)
Word Lily: Pardonable Lies (Book 3)

15 comments:

wordlily said...

I've read and reviewed the first three books in the series (pretty sure the sixth book came out earlier this year) and have the next two waiting in the wings. I thought the first one was the best of those I've read so far (Loved it!), but here are my reviews:

Maisie Dobbs: http://wordlily.wordpress.com/2008/07/18/maisie-dobbs-by-jacqueline-winspear/

Birds of a Feather: http://wordlily.wordpress.com/2009/02/26/birds-of-a-feather-by-jacqueline-winspear/

Pardonable Lies: http://wordlily.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/pardonable-lies-by-jacqueline-winspear/

wordlily said...

Also? I think not meeting the BBAW deadline doesn't mean you withdrew from the category. Rather, it means they'll evaluate you by your most recent posts. So all hope is not lost!

http://wordlily.wordpress.com

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Oh, I would have been in tears if I had done the same thing in regards to the awards ... how disappointing! I hope Wordlily is right, that you'll be evaluated on the recent posts. (I'm too new to BBAW to know for sure.)

Either way, I am sure the nominations were well-deserved!

Marg said...

Actually, your cover is okay compared to the one I had when I borrowed this book. I had to return it unread, but it was a shocker!

I am planning to borrow it again in due course and actually read it this time!

Susan said...

Wordlily: Thank you for the links! I'm so glad you enjoyed it too. I'll go read your reviews shortly.

And we'll see about BBAW....I think they meant what they said about choosing my posts....or else I'm in trouble, since I don't think my last (or most recent posts) were much about fantasy or science fiction! Oh, well, it was a 'stupid' day for me! Thanks for your support!

Melissa: thank you so much for your support also! I still can't believe that I misread the day. And I had two or three particular posts in mind......should I ever be lucky enough to be nominated again, I'll print out the email or better yet, do it that night!

Marg: how much worse could the cover be? It really is awful - not the flapper style, that's ok, it's the fact it really looks like a romance when it's a detective mystery! Now I know she's a woman and wears dress suits as was fashionable then...but couldnt' the covers feature anything but her looking at a mysterious couple? I think most of the covers feature this, which is why I had no idea they were mysteries. They are cool covers for Edwardian fiction though! lol What was on the cover of your library book?

Marg said...

I think it was this one, which doesn't look too bad, but what you can't tell from the pictures is that it is all metallic. Really not pretty.

Booklogged said...

You've stumbled on a good series. I've loved every book and am looking forward to the next.

I hope all goes well with your nomination fro BBAW. This will be my first year to participate so I can't offer anything but best wishes.

brideofthebookgod said...

Ooh I like the idea of having thrown down a gauntlet, I suddenly feel very medieval!

Glad you enjoyed Maisie Dobbs and hope all goes well on the BBAW awards front.

And as you can see (read?) my head didn't explode....

Book pusher said...

You have got me interested in Massie Dobbs, and I do like the quote you used. I am finding the discussion on using real people in fiction fascinating and while I quite enjoy novels that have exploited real lives I certainly appreciate your point about the importance of not confusing a complete fiction with the life of a real person, I am thinking about all sorts of books that use real people as characters at the moment.

Cath said...

Funnily enough the wonderful 'poster' type covers are about the only thing I like about the Maisie Dobbs books. It's ok, I know I'm in a minority of one with this, loads of people love them to death. It's me and I know it. I read the first one and found it dull, dull, dull. Plus I just could not believe that the person who employed her as a maid would pay for her education. (I *think* it was her employer?) Servants were the lowest of the low, seen and not heard in Edwardian times. I simply couldn't believe that would really happen. I tried to read book two, still dull, dull, dull. Abandoned it... I will try again because there must be *something* about this series to make people love them so much! LOL!

Table Talk said...

I think Winspear simple gets better as she goes along. I have a standing order at the library (not officially, but they know me well enough now to put things to one side for me!) I wouldn't miss her next one for the world.

Kailana said...

This is one of those few series I am actually caught up in. Yay! Glad you liked the first book, now read the rest. :) lol

Susan said...

Marg: You are right, that is a terrible cover! Ack! It's a wonder you even picked the book up!

Booklogged: Thank you! And I'm so looking forward to getting book 2 next. Do you have any reviews I can link to? I'll come take a look (I'd come visit you anyway!) Maybe I saw the review on your site. I know I saw it somewhere else too.

And thank you for participating in BBAW. I just feel silly for missing going on!

Bride: I am so glad you are feeling better! And yes, there was definitely the sound of a gauntlet! I like being medieval too.....I think if we approach it like scholars do, we could have a lengthy debate, lol! I'm going to see if I can get the book the Oscar Wilde mystery - from the library. you are so bad for my TBR pile! (this makes you a very good blogging friend! lol) then we'll see what side I fall on in the debate!!

Book pusher: I'm so glad you are enjoying the debate! I've really enjoyed it! I like discussing ideas and books, and Kay's article caught my attention. I can keep coming up with book examples with real life people as characters, too. Its' kind of scary, how prevalent it has suddenly become in our fiction, isn't it?

Please let me know what you think of Maisie Dobbs!

Cath: Oh, don't worry! some mysteries aren't for everyone - some books aren't! I had a little difficulty getting into the book, but once you read what Lady Rowan's reasoning is, it does make sense - very forward-thinking woman, she is. But as my grandmother worked as a servant in a house, before coming to Canada, she used to have the same stories, and you're right, the class system was so rigid in Britain then. Maisie is an extraordinary girl though...

Table Talk: Oh, Ann, I'm so glad you enjoy her! I'm buying the first one for my mother for Christmas, to try. I like that you have that kind of unofficial standing order, that shows how often you frequent your library! lol I do have the joy of knowing there are 4 more books ahead of me in the series now!

kailana: I know! see my comment to Ann above, I'm happy there are 4 to catch up on! I know how many series you are trying to catch up on, too. Have you reviewed any of the Maisie Dobbs series? I know I saw a review on a blog for me to write down the series in my book,but I forgot to put the blogger's name down. Maybe I'll just give you and book-logged a point anyway! lol

tanabata said...

I've read the first 2 books in the Maisie Dobbs series and have the third on hand for one of these days. I don't read a lot of cozies (would these be considered cozies?) but do like the character of Maisie and look forward to continuing on in the series.

Isn't it so frustrating when we miss something because we've got the date wrong? Regardless, congratulations on the nomination!

Susan said...

Tanabata: I'm not sure if these would be considered cozies. That's an interesting question! I agree, the character of Maisie is fascinating. And thank you for the sympathy!