Isabel Dalhousie, meet Maisie Dobbs. That's what I was thinking as I delved into this first book of Jacqueline Winspear's popular series. The character of Maisie at first reminded me a great deal of Isabel. Both are philosophers and psychologists, and are deeply intuitive people who rely on those intuitions to understand and solve mysteries. As I got further into the book, though, I found significant differences. For one thing, I liked Maisie a lot, whereas I often find Isabel irritating and exasperating in the extreme with her constant agonizing over the moral issues of everything. ("Shall I wear the pink blouse or the white blouse today? Which is the moral choice? What would David Hume do?") Maisie is a more down-to-earth, practical sort of person who lives in the real world of England ten years after the Great War and has real problems.
I suppose one of the things which makes Maisie a more sympathetic character for me is the fact that she comes from the working class. Her father was a costermonger and when her mother died just as she was entering her teenage years, she went into domestic service. Isabel Dalhousie, on the other hand, is very, very rich and never had to struggle for a place in the world. But, enough! It's unfair of me to compare the two. I enjoy them both. It's just that I find it easier to identify with Maisie.
Maisie had a bit of luck with the family with whom she was placed as a servant. Lady Rowan Compton was a suffragette and a feminist who wanted to improve the world. She recognized when she caught Maisie reading philosophy books in the family library that this was a special girl, one that she might be able to help to achieve something in the world. She sponsored her, found a tutor for her and saw to her education. Then along came the First World War and everything was put on hold.
Winspear has structured her book in three parts. The first part begins in 1929 as Maisie is launching her career as a psychologist and confidential investigator. We follow her first case which turns out to be a domestic mystery - a man suspects his wife of cheating on him. As Maisie gets into the case, she finds it much more complicated than it would have seemed at first glance. Following one line of inquiry leads to another. And another. And another.
The second part of the book gives us Maisie's backstory. We return to a time before the war and just after the death of her mother and we go with her as she enters domestic service and begins to forge new relationships and learn new things. We follow this story up until the beginning of the war and the mobilizing of the country. A traumatic event in Maisie's life forces her to reevaluate her position and she decides to volunteer as a nurse. She receives her training and is sent to France and meets her first love.
The final part of the book returns to 1929. Maisie has followed her case down all its pathways and has solved the original mystery but that has led her to further conundrums. She discovers a farm that has been set up as a "retreat" for badly injured and damaged veterans of the recent war. It sounds like a noble enterprise, but Maisie's worrisome intuition tells her something is not quite right here and that she must probe further.
This book is ostensibly a mystery but it could just as easily be classified as a historical novel. Indeed, the book reminded me somewhat - and in a good way - of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey as it is set in much the same historical period and the relationships of the characters are somewhat similar. I read that the book was very well-received by critics when it came out in 2003. It was nominated for and received several awards including the 2003 Agatha Christie Award for Best First Novel. The New York Times named it as one of its "notable books of 2003." I can only add my voice in agreement to these assessments. This is a fine first novel, well-written with a wealth of historical detail, and with sympathetic characters whom one wants to get to know better. I'm glad there are several more books in the series and I look forward to reading them.