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Maisie Dobbs (Winspear)

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs series #1)
Jacqueline Winspear, 2003
Penguin Group USA
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780142004333


Summary 
Maisie Dobbs entered domestic service in 1910 at thirteen, working for Lady Rowan Compton. When her remarkable intelligence is discovered by her employer, Maisie becomes the pupil of Maurice Blanche, a learned friend of the Comptons.

In 1929, following an apprenticeship with Blanche, Maisie hangs out her shingle: M. DOBBS, TRADE AND PERSONAL INVESTIGATIONS. She soon becomes enmeshed in a mystery surrounding The Retreat, a reclusive community of wounded WWI veterans. At first, Maisie only suspects foul play, but she must act quickly when Lady Rowan's son decides to sign away his fortune and take refuge there.

Maisie hurriedly investigates, uncovering a disturbing mystery, which, in an astonishing denouement, gives Maisie the courage to confront a ghost that has haunted her for years. (From the publisher.)


Author Bio 
Birth—April 30, 1955
Where—Weald of Kent, England, UK
Education—University of London's Institute of Education
Awards—Alex Award for Best First Novel
Currently—lives in Ojai, California, USA


Lovers of British mysteries and historical novels will find something to appreciate in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books. Maisie, a housemaid-turned-student-turned-nurse-turned private investigator in early 20th-century London, manages to straddle Britain's class system by being a woman of exceptional "bearing" and intellect who happens to come from working-class stock. As an investigator, she's green, but sharp and ambitious. She's also surrounded by vividly sketched secondary players, such as her benefactor, Lady Rowan, and mentor Maurice Blanche.

In Winspear's first Maisie story, we learn the character's background: Forced by family circumstances to go to work as a housemaid at an early age, Maisie Dobbs' curiosity and intellect are noticed by her employer, Lady Rowan. Rowan takes care of her education, and she makes it to university but the Great War interrupts her ambitions. She serves as a nurse in France, then returns to England and starts her career as a private investigator in 1929. Her first case seems like a simple investigation into infidelity; it grows into something larger when it leads realizes there's something amiss at a convalescent home for war veterans called The Retreat.

Winspear's talent didn't go unnoticed when her first novel was published in July 2003. Maisie Dobbs was named in "best" lists in both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. It was also nominated in the best novel category for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. There was an almost palpable sense of relief in the reviews, pleasant surprise that someone had offered not only a solid addition to the historical mystery genre, but had given it further depth and breadth. As an NPR reviewer put it, "[The book's] intelligent eccentricity offers relief."

Telling Maisie's stories using a warm third-person narrator, Winspear charms with her ability to convey the historical context surrounding her characters, particularly regarding the impact of the Great War. For this reason, and because her mysteries steer clear of graphic violence or sex, her books are often recommended for younger readers also. Far from hardboiled, Winspear's characters are very human, and she delivers a little romance and heartache along with the criminal wrongdoing.

Part of the appeal in Winspear's books also lies in her ability to bring a deeper, more philosophical atmosphere to the proceedings. Maisie is trained in Freudian psychology and is as interested in helping as she is in solving. A case referenced in the second Maisie story, Birds of a Feather, for example, "would not be filed away until those whose lives were touched by her investigation had reached a certain peace with her findings, with themselves, and with one another." Reading Winspear's Dobbs series may not bring inner peace, but there is something relaxing about spending time with her appealing characters.|

Extras
From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview

• Winspear also works as a creative coach. She writes on her web site, "As a coach I am engaged by those who want to establish clear intentions for their artistic endeavors, to support and encourage so that they sustain a level of energy and empowerment which is demonstrated in work that is rewarding, inspiring—and finished!" Winspear also writes about international education.

• Winspear loves outdoor pursuits such as horseback riding, hiking, sailing, and mountain biking; she's also an avid traveler, according to her web site bio.

• Her first ever job after college was as a flight attendant. "I wanted to travel and could not afford it, so I decided to get myself a job where I could travel. I did it for two years and had great fun."

• Her worst-ever job was in an egg-packing factory when she was 16.

• She love dogs, horses and generally all animals. "I will always stop to check on stray dogs—I once ended up in the emergency room with a tick embedded in me which had jumped off a dog I had rescued from a busy road. It was a deer tick, which carries Lyme Disease, so I wasn't taking any chances. Funnily enough, when I opened the only magazine in the emergency room, it was to a page carrying an article on tick bites and disease. It stated that you have six hours after the tick embeds itself, before it begins to release the bacteria that cause disease. I counted the hours from rescuing the dog, and by the time the doctor came in I was pleading, 'Get this thing out of me!!!'"

• Her favorite way to unwind is to go for a walk with her husband and the dog at the end of the working day, then they go to their local health club for a swim and to sit by the pool and read for a while. "I love time with family and friends, but completely relish time on my own when I have no agenda to follow, no to-do's, just me and time alone."

• When asked what book most influenced her life or career as a writer, here is what she said:

I love to read and have been an avid reader since the age of about three. However, I cannot say any one book ever impacted my writing career. I never read a book that made me want to be a writer per se; rather it was the love of words and what I could do with them that made me want to be a writer. So in that way my reading and writing were inextricably mixed. I cannot say that a book has ever influenced my life in a broader sense. This is always a tricky question, because "influence" suggests that it made you do something differently, or take a path not previously considered. Certainly there are books that have touched me, books that I thought about for days on end, but not that influenced me in the grand scheme of things, or made me do things differently.  (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
There's something strange about the title character of Jacqueline Winspear's deft debut novel, Maisie Dobbs, which opens in London in 1929. For a clever and resourceful young woman who has just set herself up in business as a private investigator, Maisie seems a bit too sober and much too sad. Romantic readers sensing a story-within-a-story won't be disappointed at the sensitivity and wisdom with which Maisie resolves her first professional assignment, an apparent case of marital infidelity that turns out to be a wrenching illustration of the sorrowful legacies of World War I.
Marilyn Stasio - New York Time


In Winspear's inspired debut novel, a delightful mix of mystery, war story and romance set in WWI-era England, humble housemaid Maisie Dobbs climbs convincingly up Britain's social ladder, becoming in turn a university student, a wartime nurse and ultimately a private investigator. Both na ve and savvy, Maisie remains loyal to her working-class father and many friends who help her along the way. Her first sleuthing case, which begins as a simple marital infidelity investigation, leads to a trail of war-wounded soldiers lured to a remote convalescent home in Kent from which no one seems to emerge alive. The Retreat, specializing in treating badly deformed battlefield casualties, is run by an apparently innocuous former officer who requires his patients to sign over their assets to his tightly run institution. At different points in her remarkable career, Maisie crosses paths with a military surgeon to whom she's attracted despite his disfigurement from a bomb blast at the front. A refreshing heroine, appealing secondary characters and an absorbing plot, marred only by a somewhat bizarre conclusion, make Winspear a new writer to watch.
Publishers Weekly


From its dedication to the author's paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, who were both injured during World War I, to its powerful conclusion, this is a poignant and compelling story that explores war's lingering and insidious impact on its survivors. The book opens in spring 1929 as Maisie Dobbs opens an office dedicated to "discreet investigations" and traverses back and forth between her present case and the long shadows cast by World War I. What starts out as a plea by an anxious husband for Maisie to discover why his wife regularly lies about her whereabouts turns into a journey of discovery whose answers and indeed whose very questions lie in a quiet rural cemetery where many war dead are buried. In Maisie, Winspear has created a complex new investigator who, tutored by the wise Maurice Blanche, recognizes that in uncovering the actions of the body, she is accepting responsibility for the soul. British-born but now living in America, first novelist Winspear writes in simple, effective prose, capturing the post-World War I era effectively and handling human drama with compassionate sensitivity while skillfully avoiding cloying sentimentality. At the end, the reader is left yearning for more discreet investigations into the nature of what it means to feel truth. Highly recommended.—Caroline Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Canada
Library Journal


(Adult/High School) Maisie is 14 when her mother dies, and she must go into service to help her father make ends meet. Her prodigious intellect and the fact that she is sneaking into the manor library at night to read Hume, Kierkegaard, and Jung alert Lady Rowan to the fact that she has an unusual maid. She arranges for Maisie to be tutored, and the girl ultimately qualifies for Cambridge. She goes for a year, only to be drawn by the need for nurses during the Great War. After serving a grueling few years in France and falling in love with a young doctor, Maisie puts up a shingle in 1929 as a private investigator. She is a perceptive observer of human nature, works well with all classes, and understands the motivations and demons prevalent in postwar England. Teens will be drawn in by her first big case, seemingly a simple one of infidelity, but leading to a complex examination of an almost cultlike situation. The impact of the war on the country is vividly conveyed. A strong protagonist and a lively sense of time and place carry readers along, and the details lead to further thought and understanding about the futility and horror of war, as well as a desire to hear more of Maisie. This is the beginning of a series, and a propitious one at that. —Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA
School Library Journal


A romance/investigation debut novel set firmly in the spiritual aftermath of WWI. Maisie Dobbs, recently turned private investigator in 1929 England, had been a nurse back during the war to end all wars, so she knows about wounds-both those to the body and those to the soul. It's just a month after she sets up shop that she gets her first interesting case: What initially looks like just another infidelity matter turns out to be a woman's preoccupation with a dead man, Vincent Weathershaw, in a graveyard. Flashback to Maisie's upbringing: her transition from servant class to the intellectual class when she shows interest in the works of Hume, Kierkegaard, and Jung. She doesn't really get to explore her girlhood until she makes some roughshod friends in the all-woman ambulance corps that serves in France, and she of course falls for a soldier, Simon, who writes her letters but then disappears. Now, in 1929, Maisie's investigation into Vincent Weathershaw leads her to the mysterious Retreat, run like a mix between a barracks and a monastery, where soldiers still traumatized by the war go to recover. Maisie knows that her curiosity just might get her into trouble—yet she trusts her instincts and sends an undercover assistant into the Retreat in the hopes of finding out more about Vincent. But what will happen, she worries, if one needs to retreat from the Retreat? Will she discover the mystery behind her client's wife's preoccupation with a man who spent time there? And by any chance, albeit slight, might she encounter that old lover who disappeared back in 1917 and who she worried might be dead? Winspear rarely attempts to elevate her prose past the common romance, and what might have been a journey through a strata of England between the wars is instead just simple, convenient and contrived. Prime candidate for a TV movie.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Maisie Dobbs:

1. How would you describe Maisie Dobbs? What do you most admire (or not) about her character? Is she psychologically complex...or superficially drawn?

2.. Why does the author structure the book as she does: three sections, with the middle section veering back into Mashie's past, while the first and third revolve around the present-day mystery?

3. Follow-up to Question 2: At What point do the mysterious allusions in the first part become clearer?

4. In many ways, Maisie Dobbs is an historical novel, as well as a mystery. What are the ways in which world War I and its horrors impact the story? Which was of greater interest to you—the background of London drawing rooms and vivid depictions of the war...or the current-day mystery?

5. When Christopher Davenham initially comes to Maisie with his case, she is reluctant to accept it. Why? Why does she later accept the case—what makes her change her mind?

6. How much of Maisie's investigative work relies on her almost supernatural powers? Is that...well, an easy way out for the author? Doesn't a good detective story rely on logical thinking and empirical evidence—the detective's intellectual prowess? Or is Maisie's intuition what makes the story so enjoyable?

7. Talk about Lady Compton's and Maurice Blanche's influence on Maisie Dobbs. What does Dr. Blanche mean when he says, "truth walks towards us on the paths of our questions"? What are some of his other pronouncements?

8. What prompts Maisie to question the goings-on at The Retreat?

9. How is Maisie representative of the changing role of women in the 1920's, after the War?

10. How do you feel about the ending? Some reviewers feel it unearned...or hokey...or thin. Others find it totally satisfying. Where do you stand?

11.Overall, does this book deliver? Is the mystery engaging and surprising...or flat and predictable? Does it inspire you to read other books in the Maisie Dobbs series?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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