Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Amazing Maisie!

by Anna Campbell

I've got a real treat for you today! The Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear.

This last twelve months or so, I've been reading out of the romance genre, although I still love my romances. A genre I've discovered and absolutely fallen in love with is historical mysteries.

Back in my 20s, I read a lot of mysteries, mainly British stories like P.D. James or Golden Age fiction that now SEEMS historical, although it was contemporary when it was written, like Ngaio Marsh and Georgette Heyer and one of my all-time favorite writers (who I really should do a second helping on at some stage), Dorothy L. Sayers. By the way, if you're looking for a great romance plot, you can't go beyond DLS's Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Breathtakingly emotional, packed with conflict and with a lovely sigh-worthy conclusion.

So far, my two favorite discoveries in the historical mystery genre are the charming Daisy Dalrymple stories by Carola Dunn (reviewed on the Romance Dish here) and the much darker Maisie Dobbs series.

They make an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Both take place in Britain in the shadow of World War I. Daisy is set in the 1920s and Maisie (hmm, this is starting to sound like a Dr. Seuss! Does Daisy drive you crazy? And Maisie is so hazy! And I only like my eggs green, thank you very much) in the 1930s. Both use their setting brilliantly and have an authenticity of tone that make you immediately believe these two women are products of their time and society.

The books are markedly different as well. Daisy is a viscount's daughter and there's a lovely, sparkling roaring 20s feel to her stories, whatever dark shadows murder casts upon proceedings. There's also a slow-building and very sweet romance with Scotland Yard inspector Alec Fletcher in the DD books. Daisy's books in many ways hark back to that classic Golden Age of detective stories so we get country house murders and lots of funny, eccentric characters. While somebody dies in every book (usually more than one someone), it's usually easy for the chambermaid to clean up the few drops of blood before high tea is served on the terrace.

Maisie, on the other hand, is a working-class woman who rises to success because of her exceptional intelligence and special gifts. Because in many ways, she's classless in a class-ridden society, she moves easily between the slums of London and the highest of high society.

Book one, MAISIE DOBBS, is as much Maisie's biography as it is a murder mystery. Flashbacks guide us through Maisie's life as she works as a maid in a grand house where her employer recognizes her potential. We then learn about her time as a scholarship girl at Cambridge and, most harrowing of all, her experiences as a nurse in the trenches in World War I. In France, Daisy experiences love and loss and she returns to England after the war ready to seize her destiny and devote her talents to her work as a psychologist and investigator.

The next three books are much more conventionally structured although I'd definitely recommend reading them in order because revelations about the characters are carefully placed. Maisie takes on clients who present her with a mystery and through ingenuity and courage and perception, she solves them.

Book two, BIRDS OF A FEATHER, starts out as the search for a missing heiress and ends up uncovering a web of evil stretching across all levels of society. Book three, PARDONABLE LIES, forces Maisie to face her painful memories of France when she sets out to discover the truth behind the death of a pilot in World War I. Book four (one of my favorites of the series), MESSENGER OF TRUTH, puts Maisie in an artistic milieu as she investigates the supposedly accidental death of a controversial artist.

There are romantic subplots in all these stories but I certainly wouldn't describe them as romances. The most fascinating element is Maisie herself, continually testing the extent of her gifts. She's a fascinating character, not least because she possesses an uncanny intuition that occasionally adds a mystical dimension to the stories.

She's surrounded by a cast of regular characters who are all fully drawn individuals and a major part of the series' appeal. Maisie's costermonger dad is a real charmer. There's Lady Rowan Compton, her employer and later friend, who recognizes the potential in her chambermaid. Simon Lynch, Maisie's doctor fiance in the first book. Billy Beale, her assistant who lives through a complex character arc of his own. Her mentor Maurice Blanche who helps her identify and control her gifts. When you read a Maisie Dobbs novel, you enter a real, richly textured world that is addictive.

If you'd like to find out more about the books, visit Jacqueline Winspear's website:

These books aren't exactly standard romances but they're wonderful and complex and different and beautifully written. Highly recommended!


  1. I've read the first one Anna so you've prompted me to get the rest! I love Dorothy L Sayers too.

  2. I have not heard of Jacqueline Winspear before, but I must say they look wonderful. The covers are amazing.

  3. Terrific column and reviews, Anna. I love my romances,too, but it's nice to branch out to something different from time to time. I have heard of both of these authors, but have not had a chance to read them. Are their books still in print or do I have to do a library search? (My library accutally has a first edition of "Now Voyager"!)

    I like that these writers are representative of the spectrum of the social classes in the England of post WWI and Pre WWII. If you do like historicals (and I, for one, have learned a lot of history from them) it will very effectively document the changing times from the 19th to the early 20th Century.

  4. Keziah, I think they get better - I look forward to hearing what you think of the later books. I'm all up to date on them now apart from the very latest which is only available in hardback. Yeah, DLS is amazing. I really should do a review of her books here at somet stage.

  5. Mary, I loved these. They're definitely in the crime genre rather than the romance (although there are ongoing relationships to follow). And the covers are very striking, aren't they? So art deco.

  6. Hi FS! Thanks for saying you enjoyed the column. All the Carola Dunn and Jacqueline Winspear books are in print although I think some of the CD books aren't readily available in North America (Gannon's been trying to buy them since I reviewed them a few months ago). Definitely worth trying the library for those but the Maisie books are on Amazon.

    I actually like that these aren't wallpaper historicals - the historical setting is front and center and I've learned something from all of them. They're both interesting in the way they detail the way women's roles changed in the first third of the 20th century too.

    Wow, a first edition of Now Voyager?

  7. A great post Anna

    I haven't read any of these books but they really sound good in my teenage years I read a lot of mystery type books I think I need to look at getting some of these

    Have Fun

  8. Great post! I love reading detective stories. Agatha Christie has always been a favorite and I particularly enjoyed reading the novels where she had characters of various nationalities like "Death on the Nile."

    I've never heard of Jacqueline Winspear, but I will give her books a try for sure.

  9. Great post! I've never read either of these books but am adding the first of each series to my list to pick up. Thanks! I too like to breakup my romance reading by switching genres and have been doing it lately with cozy mysteries so this will be a great addition

  10. I’m a Maisie fan—and a Daisy fan too. And, of course, I'm devoted to Dame Agatha and Dorothy L.

    I have a long list of favorite mystery authors with a fair number of historical mystery authors among them. Have you read Rhys Bowen? She has two historical series—Molly Murphy, an Irish immigrant in NYC in the early 20th century and a fun 1930s London series with amateur sleuth Lady Georgie (Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie), daughter to the Duke of Atholt and Rannoch and 34th in line to the throne. Her Constable Evan Evans books are my favorites, although not historical. You should appreciate the punny titles, Anna, such as Evans Above, Evan an Elle, and Evanly Bodies.

  11. Helen, I REALLY love these books. Well worth checking out!

  12. Antonia, so glad I've put these books on your radar. Historical romance author Andrea Penrose put them on mine and I read them all like a loon, I loved them so much.

  13. Maria, I've found it's really added spice to my romance reading by playing in another genre. Hope you enjoy Daisy and Maisie!

  14. Janga, I DID try Rhys Bowen after we were talking about historical mysteries here and while I enjoyed the first one (Her Royal Spyness), it didn't grab me the way either Daisy or Maisie did. I'll probably go back and try her again at some stage.

  15. Anna, mysteries were my first reading love. I discovered Nancy Drew and was instantly hooked. I wanted to read them all...and did! I still have my hardback copies--I'm saving them for my daughter.

    These sound wonderful! Thanks for alerting me to them. They sound like the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries. One of these days, I'm going to track those down. See, it's a mystery--HA! :)

  16. Andrea, it's such a pain that you've had such trouble tracking down the DDs. Maisie is definitely available in North America. She's been a major bestseller there - NYT, I think. It's odd - I'm REALLY getting into the mysteries these days, probably reading as many of those as of romances at the moment. I know I'll go back onto romances but mysteries seem to be hitting the spot at the moment. Maybe because I'm at a critical place with the new book and mysteries give my poor brain a rest from romantic ruminations.

  17. What fsbuchler said! *grin*

    Thanks for another terrific column, Anna. I always enjoy a good mystery and I especially like books set from the turn of the century through WWII. There were so many changes during those years, both socially and industrially. It's a fascinating period.

  18. PJ, it's interesting that that's a period that isn't particularly popular for romances sold in the U.S. market. When you go to Britain, the bookshops are full of books set in the first half of the 20th century - mainly romantic elements, it must be admitted, but still, it's obviously got a huge following. Thanks for saying you enjoyed the column!

  19. These do sound like interesting and rich stories. The WWI to WWII time period is an often overlooked setting that is rich with possibilities for an author.
    The Maisie Dobbs series sounds like a prime candidate for a Masterpiece Theater series. The Daisy series might also work, but it would be a bit more like a cute, younger version of Miss Marple.
    thanks for letting us know about these books. I'll be keeping my eyes open for them.

  20. Pat, a cute younger version of Miss Marple is a great description of the Daisy books. Even down to the settings - you know, villages and country houses and vicarages. Great fun. I think Maisie would be wonderful televised. I wonder if it's in the pipeline. A lot of detective stories seem to make it onto the screen. If it were well done (a la BBC), I think it would be amazing! Or perhaps a-maising, snort!

  21. Thanks, guys, for an interesting discussion. See you next month on the 24th!