Novel: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Certain novels cross my path for which I feel like both the perfect target audience and an imperfect one. Such is Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (2003), first in a long-running series of period mysteries about a female private detective in mid-twentieth century England. Set in 1929, it chronicles the first solo case for Maisie Dobbs, while also serving as her origin story. A poor girl who was able to climb out of poverty thanks to some timely good fortune, Maisie takes on a simple domestic case involving marital fidelity only to see it spin into a larger one that casts the long, looming shadow of World War I over the fate of numerous British Army veterans.

Maisie Dobbs is an assured, quietly composed read with an unusual structure, sandwiching a middle act of flashback backstory between its larger mystery plot. It’s surprisingly effective, the extended backwards detour—in which Maisie’s humble past works its way up the ladder through a Downton Abbey-like manor, where her potential is spotted by perceptive benefactors—failing to derail the momentum of the story. The historical detail, smooth prose, and comfortable atmosphere make for an accessible, enjoyable read. That said, the read was occasionally stilted and less-than-captivating, and Maisie is a smidge too much on the too-good-to-be-true side. The surface details shine throughout, but the broader plot underpinnings aren’t particularly intricate or enthralling. It reminded me of Susan Elia McNeil’s first novel, if perhaps more accomplished stylistically. I wouldn’t rule out reading further in the series, but I’m not exactly champing at the bit.

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