A holiday is coming up, so here’s a book for the grown ups. I’ve done this once or twice before, so just added the tag “holiday reads” to those books.
The Plot: England, 1931. Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator, is asked to do a routine investigation into a real estate and business purchase. The economic slump had made cases hard to come by, so Maisie is happy for the work and happy to be of assistance to James Compton, son of the family who have been both mentor and employer to Maisie. She discovers a village where petty crimes and small fires are ignored, a village hiding from its dark past.
The Good: This is fifth in the series about Maisie, a girl who began life as a servant and has ended up a university-educated woman running her own business as a psychologist and private investigator. Maisie’s past, her education, intellect, and intuition mean she fits in many places, listens, hears more than people say and sees more than people realize. I cannot begin to say how much I adore Maisie.
An Incomplete Revenge offers a look at a village scarred by the Great War. A zeppelin dropped a bomb on an village in Kent and the town seems to have never recovered. James Compton wants to buy a business in the town, but a bunch of petty crimes and small fires gives him concern, enough to hire Maisie to look into it. It’s the time of year when working class Londoners take a working vacation in places like Kent, harvesting hops. The Londoners are given a place to sleep and get paid; for a few weeks, they escape city life. The reader (and Maisie) learns about this, as well as observes the tensions between the Londoners, the people in Kent, and the gypsies.
I cannot say how much I love all these details of life in the 1930s.
The mystery is also quite good; most of Maisie’s mysteries involve not just looking at the crime, but also looking at the victims and the suspects and doing so as a psychologist. What makes them tick? Why do people do what they do? And, as always, this is a generation haunted by the Great War.
Winspear also weaves contemporary issues in; here, the sons of Maisie’s best friend, Priscilla, have just started school. At the new school, they are bullied. Seeing how Priscilla, Maisie and the headmaster react to what is happening at school with the boys is fascinating, especially given today’s attitudes. The kindness of people to those who they consider “us”, the harshness and cruelty to the “other” are also explored, both in terms of the English and the gypsies, Londoners versus the people in Kent, the English and the Germans.
Priscilla and her sons. Priscilla and Maisie are friends from University days. Both left school to volunteer for the Great War; Priscilla lost all three of her brothers. She now has three sons, and part of my heartbreak reading these books is doing the math, figuring out how old the boys are now and how old they will be in 1939.
Another interesting relationship that develops during the series is that of Maisie and Billy Beale. Billy is a working class Londoner, who fought and was wounded in the Great War. He now works for Maisie; as the series continues, Billy’s responsibilities and input into the cases increases. One of my personal frustrations is that, given different circumstances and education for Billy, I think he could one day be a partner in Maisie’s work. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing that, given he doesn’t have Maisie’s education, connections, or accent; and he also has a wife, mother, and small children to support.
Reading the series in order: My review of the first book in the series, Maisie Dobbs. I think it’s best to start with the first book, because it begins in 1929 then jumps back in time to show Maisie’s rise and path. This is especially for those readers drawn to these books because of the setting. Imagine Downton Abbey, but instead of the girl who teaches herself typing in hopes of being a secretary? Imagine she’s caught reading in the library, and offered private tutoring… as long as she still does all her household duties. Those of you who have watched such shows realize just how impressive Maisie’s climb is. Because the first book concentrates on Maisie’s teen years (as well as the 1929 mystery), it’s the one with the most teen appeal and was awarded a 2004 Alex Award by YALSA.
After the first book, in all honesty, unless you hate spoilers, it’s OK to read the books out of order. Each book stands alone, but time moves forward so Maisie’s relationships and friendships change and grow, and people come and go. People die, babies are born. Maisie continues to grow and mature; but, there is no series plot arc.