Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Maisie Dobbs and the Synchronicity of Finding the Perfect Book

I truly believe in paying attention to the whims of the universe. In particular, I believe if one doesn't think about it too hard or think about it too much, the streets of New York City will offer up exactly the book one should be reading at a particular point in time. The most striking example of this was when ten or twelve years ago I was looking at Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat collection (which I desperately wanted to read at the time - and rightly so as it turned out) in Barnes & Noble, but I really didn't have the money to buy books at full price, so I just walked away. The very next day someone was having a stoop sale around the corner from my house and they were selling the very same book in perfect condition for one dollar.

Often, people on my street will just leave books out on their stoops for people to take, free. Offering up books to the world is always a good thing. About a year and a half ago, someone left a book out I had never heard of. It was called Maisie Dobbs and was clearly a historical mystery and the cover art was nice - it looked like a WPA era print, so I picked it up. There are an awful lot of historical mysteries out there right now, and most of them are of middling quality. Sometimes the history is fun, but the mysteries are simple or the characters are very two dimensional. Or, in one notable instance, one finds out that the author of the historical mystery series one is reading is an actual murderer. I'm usually left feeling as if my genre needs are left a bit unfulfilled. But historical mysteries are my weakness, and I can't stay away.

All that said, I was more than pleasantly surprised by Maisie Dobbs. Jacqueline Winspear writes well and wears her research lightly. The first book in this series (currently numbering seven, I've read the first five) set in 1929 London, follows Maisie on her first case as she sets up an office as a private detective and psychologist. The case is fairly simple and the resolution is a little embarrassing (there is singing). What really made Winspear's first offering for me was Maisie's backstory. She begins as a working class girl in London, sent into service at the age of thirteen. She manages to receive an education through the good graces of her employers and their friend Dr. Maurice Blanche - European intellectual, teacher and spymaster. She gets herself to Cambridge, and then when the war breaks out in 1914, she joins up as a nurse. The war scenes are phenomenal. Winspear clearly did her research and has turned it into scenes have a day to day base level reality that one rarely finds in this kind of fiction. As I said, the mystery itself isn't great, but I usually cut authors a lot of slack on their first books. She had a great deal of backstory to contend with and she was clearly still in the process of finding her way.

I gave her next book a shot, and I'm happy I did as it was better than the first. I've enjoyed all of her subsequent entries. She does fall into some common mystery writer tropes (her faithful assistant, too many coincidences), but the quality of her writing is superior to most genre writers (and I love genre). The thing that stands out most to me is what Winspear has achieved in terms of tone. The Great War looms over all the stories and colors everything. All the mysteries relate in some way to the war. There is a constant melancholy in the books that is nearly always palpable - death is never viewed casually as it is in many mysteries. At times Maisie can begin to feel a little Nancy Drew-ish in her perfection, but just as I begin to think this, her life falls to pieces because of her need for control, self-reliance and perfection. The problems inherent in class-jumping in post-war England is also well explored.

In the most recent book in the series I've read (An Incomplete Revenge), the worry that Europe may be heading into another war is starting to be felt. I love that someone is in the process of writing a series of historical mysteries whose over-riding theme is the cost of war (I love that someone is writing a series of mysteries with any kind of over-riding theme). We are also learning more about Maisie's mysterious and long dead mother which has been lots of fun. And we're watching as her relationship with her mentor Dr. Blanche disintegrates. And we're watching the world change through Maisie's intelligent eyes. And the covers are all lovely.

But, back to the synchronicity of finding books in New York. I found this wonderful series completely by accident. Maisie, who believes in the power of meditation and of letting your brain work for you and not forcing things, believes some things are meant. Winspear has written her to be a little bit of a mystic. Now, finding an enjoyable mystery series is certainly a pleasure, but it's not necessarily life changing. I often think, and it's always a good thing to be reminded of, that sometimes pounding away at things and control and over-planning (all my faults, people, all mine) are counterproductive. So, yeah, looking at what your neighbors and the universe as a whole have decided you should be reading is maybe not the worst way to go about one's day. Does that make sense to anyone else?

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