Published: Jan 27, 2013
GUEST BUTLER NORA LEVINE: The e-mail was direct: “Have you met Maisie Dobbs, created by Jacqueline Winspear? She’s an impressive character.” I had not. I replied with a question about Maisie. Two mails later, Ms. Levine had promised to deliver a piece and I was enjoying the first mystery to hold my attention since I stumbled on to Agatha Raisin in The Quiche of Death. I’m very grateful — as you will be — to Nora Levine, who writes: “I was a law librarian until it wasn’t so much fun. Now I edit my husband’s briefs (the legal type) in Oakland, California.”
“Maisie Dobbs” was recommended to me at a holiday party. I’m not a reader of detective fiction or mysteries, but I read the first of the almost 10 book series and was captivated. A week later I mentioned the book to an acquaintance who replied she was reading it, and wasn’t Maisie an astonishing character. Then I mentioned Maisie to two friends, who said they each had just started the series and were equally intrigued by her.
“Maisie Dobbs,” published a decade ago, is going viral.
Maisie is a private detective and psychologist. That’s an intriguing combination of keen interests and intellect: college educated, a student of philosophy and psychology and eastern meditation, a nurse on the front lines in WWI France. She finds respite in the ritual of work, and demonstrates those wonderful moments of grace that can be found through work done well. Ahead of her time, she embodies a timeless poise and dignity beyond her years.
Maisie lives and works in 1920s and ‘30s London. She’s attractive, kind, very intelligent, very hard working, a good daughter. The series’ foundation contains elements and themes common to English stories of that period: distinctions of class, World War I, the sacrifices made and lives changed because of it, social upheaval, the suffrage movement, women in the working world. World War I is central to the series, but it is Maisie who is its center. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Her mother died when Maisie was young, and her father, a costermonger (and isn’t that a wonderful word for a seller of vegetables) struggling to support them, arranged for Maisie to work “downstairs” at a lord’s Belgravia mansion. She was a hard worker, but her eye was on the lord’s library, and there she sat, in secret, keeping very late hours, reading and learning everything she could. Then she was discovered burning those midnight candles…
How Maisie evolves from servant to college student to WWI nurse to proprietor of her own detective agency — that’s the plot of the novel.
But what I want to share is the depth of her heart.
The word empathy is overused and misunderstood, but Maisie is its essence. Maisie embodies a calming presence, a stillness, an innate kindness and intuitive ability to absorb and lessen another person’s trauma. She does not judge, or when she does, she does not allow that judgment to color her behavior. She creates a comfortable space and lets the subject be. She leans in, she waits, she listens, all with the goal of understanding the discomfort or pain or history others bear, and how best to make positive use of that pain or history. Her treatment unfolds with little visible effort on Maisie’s part and even less awareness from her subjects.
These arcs — from initial encounter to closure — are astonishing and moving.
Here’s the brisk, visually acute opening:
Even if she hadn’t been the last person to walk through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station, Jack Barker would have noticed the tall, slender woman in the navy blue, thigh-length jacket with a matching pleated skirt short enough to reveal a well-turned ankle.
And here’s how far the book rises about its plot:
Later, when Celia Davenham reflected upon her day, she was surprised. For though she still felt sadness, the memory she reflected upon most was that of huge bolts of fabric being moved around at her behest by willing assistants who could sense in her the interest that led to a purchase. With an enthusiastic flourish, yards of vibrant purples, yellows, pinks, and reds of Indian silk were pulled out, to be rubbed between finger and thumb, and held against her face in front of the mirror. And she thought of the person she knew as Maisie Blanche, who suddenly but quietly had to take her leave, allowing her to indulge her love of texture and color for far longer than she had intended. Thus a day that had seen so many tears ended in the midst of a rainbow.
Maisie does solve mysteries. (A girl does need to make a living, after all.) But more significantly she provides a model of the empathetic life. She gives the benefit of the doubt. She “stands in their shoes.” She leaves her clients and others feeling better for having been in her presence.
This sounds simple. In fact, it’s elegant, difficult to emulate. But she makes the reader want to try.
I must acknowledge Maisie’s creator, Jacqueline Winspear. From her website I know that she is British and lives in Northern California. She has written that her grandfather’s own significant experiences of World War I served as her inspiration for the series. She has done her grandfather proud. And now she’s inspiring others with her creation of the astonishing Maisie Dobbs.
To read an excerpt, click here.