In This Grave Hour : a Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear

Image result for in this grave hour maisie dobbs

This is the latest in a long series of novels featuring private investigator, Maisie Dobbs and her family and associates. In this book it is September 1939, war has just been declared, and tension is in the air, especially among those who remember the First World War all too well. The novels have covered the time from early in the twentieth century, when Maisie is discovered as a young maidservant reading in a library. Her adoption as a special case by her employer and the man who becomes her mentor leads to University, nursing on the Front during the First War, injury and loss of the man she loves. She makes friends, then suffers a great loss which she tries to work through by becoming involved in espionage and other work in an increasingly troubled Europe. At the beginning of this novel she is throwing herself back into investigative work with two of her colleagues, only to discover murder and mystery among refugees from previous conflict which seems to be building up once again.

So this is another book which features a woman working in the field of investigation in the interwar period. This is a sober series compared with some others that I have read; there are very few if any amusing passages in an earnest episode in which there are some affecting murders. Winspear treats murder less as a puzzle; the family of victims show emotion at their loss, desperation to discover what happened and why. The shadows of the First World War are ever present which leads me to wonder just how old some of the characters are meant to be. I wonder how much longer Maisie’s father is to continue to be a living character, let alone imparting warnings and wisdom.  The earlier books also spend many words describing Maisie’s clothes, which is not such a theme in the present novel. My favourite character, Priscilla, the strong survivor of a family who all fought in the War, does make an appearance, and  insists on Maisie joining in family events. This is a novel which could easily slide into sentimental traps with an evacuee child who refuses to speak and how Maisie deals with the situation. Winspear manages to keep it moving, and this episode shows just how difficult it is to write about this period from the twenty first century without falling into grim saga. Winspear writes memorable if slightly purple passages and scenes, but also deals with individuals who are hurting. Wounded soldiers are frequently observed, and I have no doubt that Winspear’s research into these men’s later lives is impeccable.

Winspear is a confident writer, unafraid to tackle the big international pressures through people of various classes and influences. Throughout this series I have felt occasionally that her research has dictated her theme rather than the other way round, but in this novel the necessary work on the plight of Belgian refugees is well integrated and lead me to wonder how she will tackle the European refugees in the Second War, assuming that there are more novels to come featuring Maisie Dobbs. I sometimes wish her central character would be granted lasting joy; grim satisfaction seems to be the default position. This is a book of impeccable skill as Winspear demonstrates her total command of her chosen era and characters, a strong book of women making a difference in a world where war is beginning to have its impact on daily life.

My posts have been a little more spread out as Christmas hits the Vicarage with its intermittent busy days and moments of calm. Assessment tasks for my University course are also being a bit demanding. My next post is number 300, so I am wondering if there will be time to do something a little different…

Journey to Munich – Jacqueline Winspear

After the last post, here is the most recent episode in the Maisie Dobbs series. I must admit that I did not hold out much hope of getting to read this book until it came out in paperback, but lo, there was a copy of the new hardback on the shelves of the newly discovered (for me)  Belper Library…

it

Anyone who has read any of the Maisie Dobbs books knows that this detective / secret agent / investigator carries angst with her. She comes out of service to go to Cambridge, leaves to nurse in the First World War, falls in love, loses her man etc. Somewhere along the line she comes to the notice of Maurice, who has many skills and links with the Secret Service among other organisations. His death and bequests mean that she has become a rich woman, and she has endured further tragedy by the time this, the tenth novel in the series begins.  These novels are best read in sequence as the developments in Maisie’s life are central to each plot. Some of the books are better than others, and I can remember one or two where the research undertaken hangs over the text heavily.

In this novel Maisie is despondent about her present and future, living with her friend’s family, having been rescued from nursing in the Spanish Civil War. She is contacted by some government officials who have a mission for her in Munich. It requires more than delicacy as the Nazi party are becoming more established and dangerous.

As always, there is an ongoing obsession with what Maisie is wearing. It  is partly justified by the need for disguise, but it is a theme. This is a well written book, with a strong storyline. The characters are well defined and the background of rising racism in Munich is well drawn. There is a sense of menace in every building, every turn, every decision that Maisie makes. In the last section of the book an odd decision threw me a little, but it leads to an interesting outcome.

It is not essential to have read every book in the series to enjoy this novel, but there are undoubtedly ongoing themes and characters through the story which would be confusing to the new reader.  If you enjoy reading about the interwar period and female investigators, this is certainly a good book.

A Dangerous Place – Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

I like, as an alternative to ploughing through more worthy reads such as Secret Scripture, reading series of books. Often they are set in the regency period, but there is an enormous choice of fake Golden Age mysteries, often featuring vaguely aristocratic women, who end up solving murder mysteries. (See any good library for details)

One of the best written is the Maisie Dobbs series, by Jacqueline Winspear. Her central character is a young woman who is sponsored for education by a benefactor who picks up that a servant girl is spending a lot of time in the library. She goes to college, only to have her studies interrupted by the First World War, where she works as a nurse. She is injured, and there is the carnage and after effects of battle to deal with. There is romance, gory injuries, and sensitive writing on those whose lives were turned upside down by loss. There are eight or nine books to follow, as Maisie trains as a detective not necessarily of just murder, though death and murder often feature. She is attracted by the spiritual dimension of solving mysteries, and her teacher and mentor is an interesting character. It would not be strictly necessary to read these books in order, but would help if you can find them and tackle them as there are a lot of loose threats which go from book to book.

As to this book in the series, the latest, be aware it is not fun in any respect. At least one author suggested that a writer should put their characters through the wringer to see what they do. This book takes that to extremes before the book has even begun. So our main character, not for the first time, finds herself tackling a mysterious death against a background of her own grief. For the first time this book is not set in Britain, especially a fog filled London of backstreets and social inequality. Gibraltar in the late 1930s was a place of refugees from the Spanish Civil War just over the border, and those who have lived there for generations are challenged by events and causes so near and yet, politically, so far from their experience. As Hitler’s forces mass and practise their offensive tactics, Maisie finds herself confused and threatened not only by the obvious dangers but also those who want her to stop looking into a political scene shifting and changing by the day. She is also being influenced by her own grief and that of those still in England. I must admit to being underwhelmed by this element. Even though I have carefully kept up with this series, I still got a bit confused. Winspear is trying to achieve a lot in this book, not least a picture of the Spanish situation at the time, and I’m not sure she achieves everything. Her insistence on describing every single outfit Maisie wears can get a little boring, especially as she has a never ending supply of fresh white shirts ( magically washed, dried and ironed?) which does not work out from her minimal packing. I also find her spiritual seeking a bit distracting, as I would enjoy a few more clues and a little less intuition.

These, however, are small quibbles with a series of books that take on the themes of women surviving alone in that (for me at least) fascinating interwar period. They are not as easy to read as some of these series, and lack the sometimes outrageous humour of other stories, but are probably all the better for it. These are literary murder mysteries, with an excellent background of research and atmosphere. I like that some of the mysteries are not neatly tied up, and that the grief of victims families is not wiped out by discovering the murderer or circumstances of death. There are times when I wish the writer would allow a little more happiness  to exist, but reality always intrudes.

Last year Winspear produced a non – Maisie Dobbs book, partly to mark, I imagine,  the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. This stand alone book features characters, mainly two women, who find themselves in very different situations in August 1914. The way that they react, and the pressures on them, mean that they follow interesting paths of fear, duty and supporting those that they love. There are the influences of family and the battle for women’s rights as well as the terrors of the front. This novel may be a good starting place for those wishing to find out about what women actually did in the war time, as well as those who want to read a Winspear novel without the full biography of any one character in mind.

Overall, if you enjoy Sarah Waters books and or books set in the interwar period, these are good books to read. If you get hooked, good luck in finding all the books!

Speed reading of books…

Yes, belonging to two book groups is a challenge, and I still haven’t finished The Children’s Book that I wrote about last time. I do have an excuse; one of the book groups is run in our wonderful local library and the Library service provide a set of books for members to borrow so that it is completely free to join in. Horray! What with one thing and another there were insufficient copies of the book to go round this month, so I did borrow one and speed re read it so that I could return it for another member to have lots of time. If I ever wondered why I do these things, I remember the literature courses that I have done during the day over the years which required reading things like Middlemarch instantly. I was talking to someone earlier who was tackling Mill on the Floss for a group. I read that for a course and was depressed for days! Despite both of us coming from the Midlands, I think that the latter tome was not one of Eliot’s best.

But I digress…

The book that I did speed re read was Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear. This is a very early Maisie Dobbs mystery and one which features a lot (too much?) of her ability to feel atmosphere and emotions.

It is very good on the after effects of World War one, and is a good murder mystery in its own right. It is a good idea to have the same detective and her associates in each book as it saves a lot of time in reexplaining motivations, abilities and emotions, provided of course it is able to stand alone for someone who hasn’t read the earlier books. If I had picked this one up without reading the previous novel I may have been a bit confused, but equally there is a lot of wallowing in past challenges in this book.

Maisie is drawn into seeking a lost woman and cannot avoid becoming involved in a murder mystery. There is a bit of deliberate concealing of relevant facts which is not quite within the rules of crime writing, but this is still a fascinating read. I have written about one of her later books in this series, which became bogged down in Windspear’s evident research on Gypsies. I think that she has a tendency to hang each book on a topic and become a bit obsessed. Overall I like the Maisie Dobbs books and would definitely borrow more in the series. I think that I would invest in the complete set if I saw them going cheap; certainly my experience of rereading this one shows that I spotted other aspects of the novel and picked up on other themes this time through. I don’t usually re read books that I am not studying, but at least I read it quickly!

Singled Out and Maisie Dobbs – Leftover women

One of the fascinating areas of reading popular at the moment – or is that every Remembrance Sunday – is the other effect of the carnage of the First World War, being the sheer number of women who survived the War, despite their often risky war work. Mathematics alone shows that there must have been many women who could no longer hope to marry or have relationships with men, so many young men having died or been terribly injured.

Not that I want to dwell on the tragic aspects of this era, but it did mean that women had to enter and become proficient in occupations that they would never have considered possible before. The lovely Persephone Books deal with this subject in some of their reprinted novels, but a factual book which seems to be quite positively dealing with the women’s fates is Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, subtitled “How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War”.

This seems on my reading so far to be a positive account of what these women did. It scores a hit with me because it mentions Winifred Holtby and even quotes from The Crowded Street, her novel recently reprinted by Persephone

The Crowded Street

(No.76) which is a moving account of the fate of young women who cannot fulfill their intended destiny of respectable marriage. Not one of Persephone’s most cheerful offerings, but an absorbing read which draws the reader into the plight of women living not so long ago. I would recommend it as an excellent account of the sheer hopelessness (and not in a feeble way) of these women.

Which is a long winded way of getting to today’s book, An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear, being the fifth Maisie Dobbs Mystery. For the uninitiated, Maisie is a girl who though born in the servant class in London, is supported by a wealthy patroness, begins studying at Cambridge, then becomes a nurse in the First World War.  Through the novels she becomes a Private Investigator who looks at different cases using her experiences and intuition. This latest novel fits the pattern well, reflecting the mystery-solving theme amongst some rather poignant events. I read this book quickly, enjoying picking up the clues early (for me, anyway) and the observations on life and death. It is not a cheerful book, but one which is interesting on several levels.

I have commented before that there are several series of books in which an independent female soles murder mysteries in the 20s and 30s. Of all of them, this series is the most sombre and arguably the most obviously well researched. This novel depicts the gypsy way of life, which Winspear has apparently studied carefully. which shows in some laboured passages of description. It is also a little tedious on Maisie’s abilities to become a miraculous diviner.

Those things said, this is an interesting series of books which are worth reading if you are interested in the period of history, murder mysteries and the long term effects of the War on many levels of society.