Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Jacqueline Winspear: Maisie Dobbs

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.


Anne Weale said...

Regretfully, I have to agree about Jacqueline Winspear's book. I asked for a review copy because of a life-long affection for the John Murray imprint. This story will not be joining the many JM novels and non-fiction books on my shelves. But I suppose the sad fact is that John Murray now is no longer the same imprint it was when Murrays were in charge.

lady t said...

Booksense 76(now called Booksense Picks) is a recommended reading list put out by independant booksellers in the US of new titles,with blurbs from the booksellers themselves.

I was a bookseller who contributed some qoutes(Booksense is run by the ABA and they have a editor who chooses what qoutes they pick from the many that are sent in online.)so,I'm familar with the whole deal. I didn't read the Winspear book but it did seem a tad too precious to me as well.

Maxine Clarke said...

Make that two. I "accidentally" read the first Masie Dobbs book and thought it was dreadful. I have never understood why so many normally critical reviewers and writers are so keen on her. (Presumably as you say, due to the author being connected?)

I did read (in PW and elsewhere) that Masie Dobbs is really what the US industry calls "young adult" books and after its initial print run was repackaged as such -- but had lost interest by then.

Suzan Abrams, email: said...

You have convinced me once again, Nr. Allen and together with that sardonic humour.

Anonymous said...

I just read this, and I'm a new fan of GOB, who I found after loving Locke Lamora. Maisie was a bit, you know, twee, but it was a first novel (I think?), and I thought it had enough about it to suggest that when JW gets more practised, calmer about weaving in research, and more nuanced, these books could be interesting. I'm not saying that's definitely going to happen - sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, but it happens often enough for me to invest the time.

(For me, for instance, the first Mankell wasn't that great (better than this, but...) and if I were to start on Pratchett today, I'd find the first couple tiresome. Some writers take time to mature.)

(As you can tell from this post, I am an extremely mature and generous-minded person.)

Anonymous said...

Agreed. I am half way throught "Masie Dobbs" and am thinking about giving it up. The Khan individual giving young Masie peculiar "wisdom" lessons was... just too much.

Anonymous said...

The critics of this series are obviously too young to understand the basis of the Maisie Dobbs series. World War I was horrific and ms. Winspear gets to the heart of the whole holocaust. Each book, and I have read all of them, zeroes in on the terror of that time and the resulting consequences. I suppose, if you are fond of more violent escapades, Maisie would not appeal. Too bad.

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typingperson said...

The first Maisie Dobbs novel I read was the fifth one, An Incomplete Revenge. It made a real impression on me. Dobbs' use of mindfulness practice in her investigative work is unique among detective novels and Winspear's writing about trauma is perceptive, mature and sophisticated.

I've gone on and read others since then--the theme of carefully uncovering trauma by a woman who has her own trauma she's trying to heal from is there from the beginning, but gets more interesting as the series continues. Dobbs matures and has to grapple with her own loneliness and relationship blockage--while pursuing some interesting cases.

Winspear is a sensitive and perceptive writer and I appreciated her mature, literate style--so different from the slapdash, wooden writing of much current detective fiction.

Kelly said...

You complain about the East London dialogue. Do you hold it against Charles Dickens? Winspear doesn't get any more accurate with the cockney than he did.