I have a habit of adding books to my list to read and promptly forgetting who recommended it or where I heard about it. I believe I stumbled upon Maisie Dobbs through some sort of NPR list somewhere. But who knows. What I do know is that i added it to my to read list and there it was, one day, available at my local library. The best part of reading like this is I typically forget why I’m interested in a book and trust if it made it to my list, I’ll enjoy it. It’s like a surprise when I crack open the book to find out what it’s about.
I am not typically a detective story reader, and this is most certainly a traditional detective story. What makes it different is that it’s a female detective. in England. In the 1920s. Already, I was intrigued. I like when a genre turns things on its head a bit. Our protagonist, Maisie, become a maid in Lady Compton’s home at the age of 14 to help out her father after her mother’s passing. Maisie is a decent maid but an even better scholar and is caught sneaking into the home’s extensive library late at night to study philosophy and languages and a myriad of subjects located on the shelves. Instead of punishing the girl, Lady Compton engages a friend to help Maisie along with her studies. A bit of a Henry Higgins without the condescension and later love. Maisie even makes it to Cambridge. The novel flashes back between Maisie’s past education and later stint as a nurse in World War I complete with mysterious love story and a present case that leads her to a mysterious enclave in the country called the Retreat for post war survivors. It becomes urgent that she solve this mystery before Lady Compton’s, her benefactress, son checks into the Retreat in a few weeks’ time. Through her adventure, she must learn to not only solve the case independently, but also come to terms with her own war experience.
I liked Maisie and following her struggles to prove herself in a man’s world. The love story was intriguing, knowing that in present time her love was not a factor adding to the mystery of what happened. The story’s central mystery at the Retreat was a leap for me. It stemmed from her first investigation and was a tangent to that story. I felt a little bit like the author forced a bit of connection to get to this real mystery and it wasn’t as organic as I think it could have been. I also was frustrated at the end when a large part of the resolution of the mystery was told in long-form dialogue. I am a big fan of show don’t tell and felt no need for this exciting bit of action to be relegated to dialogued recap. But, I mentioned I’m not a huge detective story reader, and so that could be a device used often in this genre and I was put off by something that might be expected, desired or perfectly acceptable to other readers without my particular pet peeves.
Overall, I enjoyed the story and the characters. I would most certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys detective stories, particularly series stories as there are, I believe, 11 Maisie Dobbs novels. If you enjoy Downton Abbey and that time period of England. you will probably also enjoy this book. I had an instant visual reference for this novel due to my Downton habit and the upstairs vs. downstairs debate rings through this novel as well.
I give this a solid 3.5 out of 5.
Are you a fan of detective stories? Are there any out there I should consider adding to my list for 2015?
Next up: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Spoiler alert: LOVED IT!