Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear, Penguin, $14.00.
This is a wonderful first novel, and the first third or so is almost transcendent. This novel, set in 1929, and eventually going back in time to the war, has one of the more memorable central characters I've ever encountered. In a brief dedication, Winspear says that the character of Maisie is based on her grandmother - if true, her grandmother was certainly a remarkable woman. As the book opens, Maisie is establishing her private enquiry agency - but with Maisie, there's an extra dimension to it - an almost psychic or psychological one. It's mysterious, and you must read a good bit of the book before you understand what it means. When she's asked by an obviously desperate man to find out if his young wife is cheating on him, she agrees, but says he must agree not to act on her information until they can discuss it. Maisie follows his wife and discovers her secret - in the process, becoming friendly enough with the woman to actually change her life to some degree. In the course of her investigation, she also discovers the existence of a home for veterans of the war where the veterans have given up all their possessions and money, as well as their last names, for the chance to live in peace and not have to endure the every day stares they encounter with their horribly scarred faces. Maisie is intrigued by this information but doesn't act upon it until it becomes apparent that the son of a dear friend is thinking of going to live there.
Winspear leapfrogs the novel back in time to the story of Maisie's girlhood - an incredible intelligence pulls her out of the working class and sends her to university - but the war intrudes, and Maisie finds herself on the front lines as a nurse. This treatment of the war from a female point of view has been handled before - notably by Vera Brittain in her classic, Testament of Youth - but this is very well done, and quite vivid at points. The various threads of the novel - and there are many - are never confusing and are neatly tied up by the end. The actual mystery is probably the weakest part of the book, but the character of Maisie more than makes up for it, and to miss the writing in the first third of the book would be almost criminal. This is a subject not much covered in mystery books - in fact, I think only Charles Todd writes about the same period (though he has recently been joined by Anne Perry) - and this is told from a working class woman's point of view rather than from an upper class male point of view. In either case, WWI was a horrible experience for everyone concerned, and whether it's Winspear or Todd, the picture of the aftermath is a lively one. The character of Maisie is absolutely delectable - don't miss making her acquaintance.
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