Maisie Dobbs

About a year ago the principal of the school where I teach handed me a book. I’d requested something in the detective fiction genre because my wife and I had gone down that route via the gateway of Rex Stout and his irrepressible character Nero Wolfe, followed not long after by Agatha Christie’s appealing detective Hercules Poirot. After exhausting the accessible annals of these two great, and in some ways similar characters, we felt stranded. We didn’t really want to head into the vast world of crime fiction redolent with blood and gore; we didn’t want to “enter into the mind of a psychopath;” we weren’t even ready for the “hard-boiled” detective worlds of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hamett.

The book my principal handed me was called Maisie Dobbs. The name and that of the author, Jacqueline Winspear, were totally unfamiliar to me. Winspear turned out to be a woman of British origin who is now living and writing in the San Francisco area. Maisie Dobbs is the name of Winspear’s young, female English “Intuitive Detective” who lives and works around London during and after the time of the First World War.

From the beginning of Maisie Dobbs, the premier novel of a series which now includes nine others (the first two of which have won Agatha Awards [view complete list of winners by year], while the third and fourth have received nominations), I felt intrigued. The writing was skillful, the characters believable, the descriptions strong. Furthermore, I found myself entering a period of recent history I knew very little about. As I read, I came to realize just how little, as well as to what extent our own world remains an outcome of those times.

Whenever my wife and I begin watching a movie that involves that period, one of us asks the other, “How did the First World War start, again?” We end up pausing the DVD while I go to the Wikipedia article on the computer and print out a synopsis, realizing all the while that books thick enough to hold in place flat objects being repaired with glue have been devoted to that subject.

Famous is the human toll of the war, the nine million murdered in battles during which 100,000 soldiers might have died in a day, while “taking” a few yards of muddy ground which would be re-taken by the enemy a week or so later. We know also that the First World War was, in a way, “target practice” for the even bloodier and more barbaric period that soon followed, the atrocities of which may someday help to shock us into peace.

Maisie Dobbs makes her appearance in this milieu. She’s a kind of detective, but not in the tradition of Wolfe, Poirot, or any previous sleuth I’m aware of. Maisie has studied with an elderly Frenchman named Maurice, a longtime resident of London. Maurice has been tutored in Legal Medicine at Edinburgh University; but he’s also had his own teacher, a blind, elderly Sri Lankan named Khan, who also lives in London.

Thus, we have a bridge from the “mystic East” to Euro-American detective fiction! The link in the novel is of course fictional, but it parallels history. Only now, in examination with the benefit of hindsight, are the cross-pollinating effects of the British colonial period becoming apparent. In the late 1930s, one of the Maisie Dobbs novels estimates the actual population of Indians living in London at 6,000 to 7,000. But these Indians, as depicted in the most recent of Winspear’s novels, Leaving Everything Most Loved, began a quiet cultural revolution in England. They were involved in all strata of London society, whether as domestics or university professors. And, no doubt, there were a few “teachers” of the sort Khan is modelled after, as well.

Thus, Maisie Dobbs is able to pursue an intuitive, rather than an intellectual, Holmsian (or Wolfian or Poirotian) line of inquiry in solving her cases. She bills herself on her business cards as a “Psychologist and Investigator.” This combination would have been utterly unknown in 1920s London. She blazes a new trail. A reader such as me thus traces the beginnings of the “new age,” at least fictionally, back to the early decades of the 20th century, and puts Ms. Dobbs in the context of a world of Blavatskys and other female pioneers. (In fact, one of the books explains that so many English women were left without partners after a virtual generation of men died in the war, that they had to become independent and embodied a kind of feminist generation.)

In another way, the books purvey a kind of timeless Christian message, at least in essence. Ms. Dobbs practices a simple respect for all beings, no matter what their station or, in a few cases, species. Maisie Dobbs’ ethos really goes beyond East and West. She practices a Golden Rule honoured by both, but so scarce in the 1920s world depicted, that you’ll frequently cringe when realizing just how dark this period we’re emerging from actually was!

Winspear is ingenious in her choosing of subjects and cases for Ms. Dobbs to pursue. They mirror the major social problems of our own day, those which clearly reveal a deep fragmentation of society and the hypocritical disregard of its supposed ideals. One novel is about gypsies; another, about the homeless veterans on London streets. One involves a wronged man who likely was autistic; another, the deep prejudice encountered by the aforementioned Indian minority.

Front cover - Essay about the Maisie Dobbs novels

As the novels progress, the reader follows the emerging clouds that will eventually result in the Second World War. We see characters like Oswald Moseley, a historical figure who led a British fascist movement. Maisie Dobbs encounters him and is gradually sickened to see how many people of England’s wealthy and aristocratic classes are drawn to him.

Winspear can be credited with meticulous historical research. She remarks in one introduction that her grandfather’s traumatic First World War experience helped inspire the novels. She has also written essays about her strict standards regarding every aspect of her books. She is fond of describing the outfits worn by her characters and the interiors of “period” rooms.

Another quality of the Dobbs books as specifically “intuitive” detective annals, one which I came to feel affection for, is a departure from the usual genre formula. In most cases, the crime is presented as a puzzle, and your Wolfe or Poirot uses a kind of intuitive reasoning to solve it. Then, there may be a comical last scene, or simply a cursory chapter tying up loose ends.

Maisie Dobbs’ tying up of loose ends is anything but cursory! Her teacher has inculcated in her the understanding that the cases which present themselves when a client hires her are also her work on herself. In each, the characters she meets represent—in the Jungian sense, you could say—parts of herself she must come to terms with. Therefore, each time a case ends, her mentor has taught her to revisit each locale and regard each person she’s encountered, in order to find closure within herself and make peace with the chapter of her life which has just ended. There is so little suspense in these final segments of the Dobbs novels, which are often quite a few pages long, that they almost defy the genre. You might even begin to think of them as non-artistic.

However, I became glad to see, as the final cadences of each novel began, that everything is not tied up in a neat plot bundle, knotted at the top with an “Ah, Cisco, ah, Pancho!” moment. Our lives, too, are open-ended and will remain so, and our tentative peace, the balance of consciousness we restore with effort after each foray into the thick of life’s battles, lasts only until the next adventure begins.

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image: kkfea (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)