This book is the ninth outing for Maisie Dobbs. Jacqueline Winspear continues to define historical mystery novels with a classic flair. Over the period of the last eight books, we have covered the time from pre-WWI to the early 1930s, where this novel opens. We have watched Maisie grow from a teenage housemaid to an independent woman with dynamic and unusual (for the 1930s, at any rate) skills.
We are returning to Maisie's backstory here; Lambeth, where her father began as a costermonger (street seller of fruit and vegetables, in London and other British towns), is in the forefront of Maisie's mind, and her caseload. Old friends of her father have come to her for help. Eddie was "slow" and gentle, a friend to all, and dedicated to the well-being and care of horses. Known as what we now would call a horse-whisperer, Eddie is often requested by gentry and the working man alike when it comes to problem horses. Now he has died, under rather bizarre circumstances, and no one seems to care enough to follow up on what happened, or to see that justice is done for Eddie.
In this book Maisie is deeply introspective of her past and present habits and behaviors, and realizes that her strengths in her current life may not be helpful to those around her. She ponders if having inherited a fortune from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, and having a love affair with the wealthy son of her former employers have caused her discomfort with being one of the moneyed classes. We, the readers, begin to see the struggles Maisie has suppressed: the care of her father, whether or not to marry her lover James Compton, what is going on with her dearest friends, Priscilla and Douglas Partridge, and how to handle a subtle breakdown of her relationship with the family of her right-hand-man, Billy Beale.
The obvious differences in class and money in this time just before WWII is both educational and disturbing. Political hanky-panky is becoming prevalent, and diverse groups are rising from the mist: socialists, communists, fascists, and political "has-beens" like Winston Churchill. Reading this 80 years in the future of Maisie's timeline can be frustrating, since Maisie is feeling the pinch of social "norms" in trying to decide what kind of future she wants. Married women have few rights in this era, and Maisie is well-educated, working for herself in an interesting field, and under pressure to find a way to embrace all the facets of her personality and her relationships. As a psychologist, she is aware, now more than ever, of her failings; her meddling in the lives of those she loves, her indecision when it comes to lovers and friends, and having to decide how deeply she wants to delve into the dark byways of political shenanigans.
There are more deaths, possibly related to Eddie's, and a severe beating of a co-worker. A publisher is brandishing his power to control the information Maisie finds and shares with her costermonger friends. Those friends don't really don't care about anything but making ends meet and bringing fair dealing to the dead, but they too are being pressured to shut up and leave well enough alone. There is a definite strand of sadness and retrospection in this book, and, as with all good serial novels, the characters grow, change, and evolve as time passes. It is hard to easily define a Maisie Dobbs book. More than a mystery, it is an historical perspective for modern readers who enjoy learning along with their "whodunits." This is a series that is best read from book one, and if you haven't discovered Winspear's seminal series, this summer is a perfect time to start!
Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Among the Mad and An Incomplete Revenge, as well as four other Maisie Dobbs novels. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Agatha, Alex, and Macavity awards for the first book in the series, Maisie Dobbs. Originally from the United Kingdom, she now lives in California. Visit her website.
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