I am sorry to report that I am unable to join in the general enthusiasm for Jacqueline Winspear and her new sleuth, the eponymous Maisie Dobbs. Indeed I seem to be in a minority of one.
Maisie Dobbs comes covered in honours. It was: one of Publishers' Weekly's Best Mysteries of 2003; a Booksense 76 Top Ten pick (whatever that means); had starred reviews in both Publishers' Weekly and the Library Journal; was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003; was an Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel 2003 (now that I find really difficult to understand); and, also, was an Agatha Award winner for Best First Novel 2003.
Well, you could have fooled me.
The principal character is Maisie, who has set herself up as a private investigator, and she looks into the curious case of the rest home for badly injured ex-servicemen. The book is set mainly in 1929 (for the first 67 pages), and then goes back to the time of the Great War (1914-18), or earlier, before returning to 1929. That flashback is all devoted to backstory, and seems to go on for ever; yet this is being sold to us as a crime novel.
On the positive side, the author has spent a great deal of time researching the background, and has planned her novel carefully. But the overall tone of the book is quite incredibly old-fashioned; I think it would have felt a bit quaint even if published in 1929. As for the characters -- well, to my way of thinking they're pure cardboard and stereotype. The good guys, and gals, are incredibly noble and self-sacrificing, and the villain doesn't quite twirl his mustachios, but very nearly. I found the characters' motivation questionable and their mode of conversation unrealistic. And for my taste there is far too much Cockney dialogue with lots of apostrophes. (I 'ope 'e 'asn't 'alf-inched that 'ammer, Miss. Lawks a mussy!)
No, no. This really will not do. Not for me, at any rate. The only truly interesting feature that I can find occurs when Maisie is following a woman and takes careful note of her posture. By copying that posture herself, she gains an insight into the emotion which the woman might be feeling. Maisie does the same thing with other people whom she is following or observing. Now that, I grant you, is an original thought. But I can't recommend that you wade through 292 pages, just for the one insight.
Though presented to us as a crime novel, Maisie Dobbs hardly qualifies as such. It is at least as much a romance (in this case a story of lost love) or a family saga. It reminds me of those Josephine Cox books about feisty working-class girls struggling to make their way through life against colossal odds. Only it's not as good.
And how, I wonder, did this book come to be published in the UK by John Murray? JM is an old-established firm which once published Byron; and a firm which, though no longer independent, still has something of a reputation for literary quality. The answer to that question may perhaps be found on the author's web site, where it is revealed that she once worked in 'general and academic publishing' in the UK. It never hurts to know a few people.
There are two more in the Maisie Dobbs series: Birds of a Feather, and Pardonable Lies. But personally I shan't bother.