Book Review: Leaving Everything Most Loved (Maisie Dobbs #10) by Jacqueline Winspear

lovedThere was a time when I would count down the days to the release of the new Maisie Dobbs novel. I waited a month to read Leaving Everything Most Loved (★★★). I partly blame my local Barnes and Noble; I searched for the book for three weeks before I found it. I also blame myself for reading reviews on Goodreads and being spoiled.

The book opens with Maisie visiting Dame Constance, a nun introduced in a previous book, for her advice on Maisie’s personal problems: should she accept James Compton’s proposal or travel the world (India specifically) in Maurice’s footsteps? It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. Maisie sounded, dare I say?, illogical and immature, as if she merely went for Dame Constance to give Maisie her stamp of approval to do what she wants. Which, it turns out, is exactly what Dame Constance does.

Fate helps Maisie out by presenting her with the case of a murdered Indian woman. I’m not even going to bother going into the mystery. Maisie, Sandra and Billy go around investigating but don’t solve anything. Maisie is told the whole story by a character at the end of the book. Frankly, it was all a little lazy and not very interesting. Winspear had the opportunity to delve into the racism of the time, but that aspect is barely skimmed, almost justified. Maybe the better word is excused. It does all circle back to the Great War, unfortunately. I hoped after that particular crutch was skipped over in Elegy for Eddie we would not return. The connections with the war are becoming more and more tenuous. In fact, Winspear should take a couple of her characters’ advice: pull your socks up and move on.

Maybe, just maybe, she is. The end of the book finds Maisie on a ship bound for India to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. She has closed her business, her father is married, Billy and Sandra have new jobs and James is off to Canada, still patiently waiting for Maisie to answer his marriage proposal. Finally, though, he had the balls to give her a drop dead date: on March 31, 1934, Maise has to answer yes or no, in person or through telegraph. Please God, let the next book start after March 31, 1934. I don’t think I can stomach another book, or two, or three, of her waffling about what to do. For a woman who is supposed to be wise and brilliant at reading people, can she not see her inability to answer James IS the answer? Although Winspear spends more time with James and Maisie together in this book I still do not buy their relationship. He comes across as an idiot or a fool for letting Maisie string him along. She comes across as unemotional and indecisive in her inability to answer. More to the point, I feel no sexual tension between the two and there is zero passion. I always feel I am reading about inappropriately close siblings. Is this because Maisie is closed off emotionally? Is this lack of passion intentional on Winspear’s part? Is she trying to show us James is not the love of her life, not the other half of her split soul, despite Maisie saying she loves him? Or, is this emotional distance Winspear’s writing style? *shrugs* I honestly don’t know. It could be a combination of all three. Whatever the answer, I still, after three books, have zero investment in what should be the central relationship.

It is incredibly brave of Winspear to hit the reset button, but has she really? Will Winspear follow Maisie on her journey to India and beyond, or will she skip forward in time, with Maisie back in England reestablishing her life? The nature of the modern mystery series is dependability, the reader revisiting the familiar, which makes me lean toward the latter. Six months or a year will have passed and Maisie will return, wiser but the same (though probably a bit more meditative and zen, which could be insufferable; it will be a fine line for Winspear to tread, IMO), she will be pulled back into investigating as will Billy and Sandra. If that happens, then this was all clever fake out. The status quo will be reestablished and fans of series mysteries will be happy.

What would be bolder is for Winspear to jump far into the future, say four years. Maisie will be 40, she will have turned James down, it will be 1937 and war will be on the horizon. The England she returns to will be drastically different from the one she left. It’s a tantalizing idea and would be an audacious move. Which is why there is little likelihood of it happening.

Other Thoughts:

  •  I initially gave Leaving Everything Most Loved four stars for the reset button and for the possibilities of what comes next. But, I shouldn’t rate this book on what will or will not happen in the next book (and I’m sure there will be another). The mystery was dull and Maisie was borderline insufferable with her indecision.
  • The ship to India or back would be the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie type book, which I wished for in my Lesson in Secrets review. Still waiting. Still hoping. Though let it happen after March 31, 1934. Please.
  • From reading a few interviews of Winspear’s, I suspect she intends to keep Maisie single as long as possible, to tell the story of all the women who didn’t have the opportunity to marry after WWI with the loss of so many men.
  • However, Maisie did mention an Indian myth about two souls being separated and searching the world for each other. Interesting she didn’t think of James at any time during that story. Could that myth influence her decision to marry James? It would be a nice bit of continuity, if so.
  • Winspear wants to show a modern woman, a trail blazer, but more and more, Maisie looks and acts dated. Her dialogue sounds is formal and forced, as is Winspear’s POV voice. Maybe India will help Maisie relax a bit and move completely into the 30s. She sounds stuffy and Edwardian and, as time marches forward, she will seem more and more out-of-place.
  • In this interview, Winspear says quite a lot will be revealed in the next book, to be published in 2015. Winspear is working on a book outside the series, not a mystery, set during the Great War. I’m curious to read something else by her, to see if Maisie’s formality is of the character or the writer.

Book Review – No Graves as Yet by Anne Perry

no-graves-as-yet-anne-perry-paperback-cover-artBook Description: On a sunny afternoon in late June, Cambridge professor Joseph Reavley is summoned from a student cricket match to learn that his parents have died in an automobile crash. Joseph’s brother, Matthew, as officer in the Intelligence Service, reveals that their father had been en route to London to turn over to him a mysterious secret document—allegedly with the power to disgrace England forever and destroy the civilized world. A paper so damning that Joseph and Matthew dared mention it only to their restless younger sister. Now it has vanished.

What has happened to this explosive document, if indeed it ever existed? How had it fallen into the hands of their father, a quiet countryman? Not even Matthew, with his Intelligence connections, can answer these questions. And Joseph is soon burdened with a second tragedy: the shocking murder of his most gifted student, beautiful Sebastian Allard, loved and admired by everyone. Or so it appeared.

Meanwhile, England’s seamless peace is cracking—as the distance between the murder of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian anarchist and the death of a brilliant university student by a bullet to the head of grows shorter by the day.

Anne Perry is a sublime master of suspense. In No Graves As Yet, her latest haunting masterpiece, she reminds us that love and hate, cowardice and courage, good and evil are always a part of life, in our own time as well as on the eve of the greatest war the world has ever known.

I have a very high regard for Anne Perry’s historical novels, specifically her William Monk series. Her characters are vibrant, believable and behave appropriately for the period, historical details are woven seamlessly into the story, her plots are intricate without being convoluted. I know when I pick up an Anne Perry mystery it will be a satisfying read.

Which is why I was surprised and disappointed when I read No Graves as Yet (★★), the first in a four novel series set in England around World War I.  Though it was only 384 pages long, it felt much longer. The prose was over run with descriptions of Cambridge, facial expressions and what every character was feeling after every sentence of dialogue.  Whereas Perry’s descriptions of Victorian London enrich her William Monk stories, I’m having a hard time bringing to mind the same world building or sense of time in No Graves as Yet.

There were two mysteries, one resolved satisfactorily, though the logic the main character used to get to the solution was rather convoluted. The resolution of the other, the inciting incident, took too long, went off on an unrelated tangent and creates more questions than answers, which is probably the point seeing as there are three more novels in the series. The unrelated tangent has historical significance and, I imagine, will impact the story down the line. Unfortunately, based on my irritation with Perry’s writing style in this novel, I’m not entirely sure I am interested in reading the other three novels and finding out how it all fits together.

  • No Graves as Yet by Anne Perry
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (July 26, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345484231
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345484239
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches

Book Review – On Caanan’s Side: A Novel by Sebastian Barry

Synopsis: Told in the first person, as a narrative of Lilly Bere’s life over seventeen days, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. Lilly revisits her past, going back to the moment she was forced to flee Ireland, at the end of the First World War, and continues her tale in America, a world filled with both hope and danger. At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s story unfolds as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, from the Great Depression to World War II and the Vietnam War, it is the heartbreaking story of a woman whose capability to love is enormous, and whose compassion, even for those who have wronged her, is astonishing.

On Canaan’s Side (★★★★) is a novel that rewards you for your patience. What starts off as a disjointed jumble of memories evolves into a poignant, emotionally wrenching autobiography of Lilly Bere, an 89-year-old Irish cook mourning the loss of her grandson.

Novels such as On Canaan’s Side always make me marvel about the span of time, how different we are and the world surrounding us is from when we come into the world than when we leave. I wonder, though, if this wonderment is specific to lifetimes that span the 20th century. Think of it: born in 1902 when automobiles were new inventions, human flight was just on the horizon and the discovery of penicillin was 20 years away and died in 1991 when cars, jets and antibiotics are taken for granted. These are just three examples of how foreign her world became during her lifetime. There  were times during my reading of this novel that I would stop and wonder how different the world will be when I’m 89. I’m unfortunately not creative enough to imagine it (I prefer writing in the past than imagining the future) but I have no doubt that it will little resemble the Texas of my childhood.

It takes fifty or more pages to fall into Lilly’s rhythm and to discern enough about who everyone is to stop worrying about who everyone is and how they fit into the story. When you finally do, though, Barry brings a wonderfully affecting end to a unique life.

  • On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (September 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670022926
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670022922

Book Review – Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan

I read about this book this past summer through one of the umbiqutous “Summer Reading” lists. I thought I added it to my Amazon Wish List* but did not. When I was trying to find something interesting to read I remembered it and went searching. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the title, author and only a general idea about the story. After about three days of sporadic, fruitless Googling, I hit on the word that would give me the search results I wanted: monument.

*Here’s an idea for those that compile those lists – have a button, like a Twitter or Facebook button, that will create an Amazon or Barnes and Noble wish list from your selection. I’m sure if someone approaches Amazon with the idea, they will come up with the code.

Gil Gilheaney is an ambitious sculptor whose pride drove him from New York City to the artistic backwater of San Antonio, Texas, just after World War I. His thirty-two year old daughter Maureen, who dreams of being a sculptor in her own right, assists him in his endeavor to attain the respect as a premier sculptor he thinks he deserves. When an aging Texas rancher, Lamar Clayton, commissions Gil to create a monument to his son, Ben Clayton, who was killed in the war, Gil believes the statue will be his greatest achievement. To create a realistic portrait of the young man, Gil and Maureen visit the ranch where he grew up and delve into his life there and his relationship with his father. It isn’t long until they realize that there is much more to the quiet rancher and his relationship with his son than meets the eye.

What drew me to Remember Ben Clayton (★★★★) was an excerpt I read when I first heard about it. In that excerpt, we meet the main characters – the taciturn rancher, Lamar; the egotistical sculptor, Gil; and the dutiful daughter, Maureen – and Harrigan takes us all to where the statue will be located, an isolated hill in the middle of the ranch with a view of the country stretching out for miles. The description of the spot, the desolation, the isolation, gives the monument a certain pathos that hooked me. Harrigan brilliantly weaves aspects of Texas history that many have forgotten (child abductions and murderous raids by Indians) with the emotional and physical scars of the soldiers after World War I and the obscure art form of monument sculpting that many of us see every day but have never considered the work or creativity that goes behind it. He does this all while creating very real, relateable and flawed characters. When I finished the book I was satisfied but curious to know what happened to them next.

I don’t want to call Stephen Harrigan an “Texas writer,” though that is what he is, because I fear that will be too limiting. Harrigan has a great voice, one that not only describes his home state with great affection but that also creates indelible characters who stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. He imbues plot points that could be considered tropes with such humanity and depth you feel like you are reading about this particular conflict for the first time.

Other Thoughts:

  • Hopefully, Gil or Maureen had the prescience to move to England where almost every town in the country would commission a monument to their war dead.
  • It was fun to read a book that hit on all of the historical events I have been most interested in this year – Prohibition (very slight in Remember Ben Clayton), World War I and the Indian Wars in Texas, specifically the abduction of children and women (men were killed, if not outright, after being tortured to death).
  • Remember Ben Clayton is a work of fiction based on Pompeo Coppini’s Charles H. Noyles statue in Ballinger, Texas.
  • After reading this book, I will never look at statues the same way again.
  • Harrigan does a great job of showing the reader the process for the statue creation without being too technical or boring the reader.
  • Based on my enjoyment of Remember Ben Clayton, I will add Harrigan’s other novels to my to-read list.
  • Here is an article on Stephen Harrigan in the New York Times.


 

What’s on my bookshelf?

Cover of "The Devil in the White City:  M...

Cover via Amazon

When I returned from a girls trip the first weekend in April my house looked better than when I left it. This is not unusual. My husband is very good about cleaning the house before I get home. I can’t imagine coming home to a disaster area which I know from talking to friends is the usual state when homes are left to the management of husbands and kids.

I think I keep a pretty good house. I do laundry every other day, clean the bathrooms a couple of times a week, sweep the freaking floor every hour or two (or so it seems), dust, mop, etc., etc. We don’t have a lot of knickknacks and clutter as a general rule. But, there are a couple of areas that are magnets for clutter, the primary one being a built-in desk/bookshelf, the only bookshelf in the entire house. Which leads me to one reason we don’t have a lot of chotskies – we don’t have the wall/table/bookshelf space for stuff like that. Except for my three bookshelves.

Now, for someone who loves to read, like I do, having three shelves for my books has been a major pain. I typically only keep books I really like and intend to read again. But, it’s difficult to winnow down my books to fit on three shelves. As a result, books would be doubled up, laid down sideways in front, stuck above the row of books, etc. Basically shoved any way I could get it into the shelf. It didn’t look great but it wasn’t the first thing people saw when they walked into our house, anyway, so it didn’t bother me. The desk is tucked away so that the only people who would see it are coming out of the half bathroom or entering the house through the garage door, which no one does.

You combine my cluttered bookshelf with my husband’s cleaning verve and his propensity to shove shit into drawers, closets, attics and little used rooms so that our house has the appearance of being tidy* and you might guess where this is going…he moved the randomly placed books off of my bookshelf when I was out-of-town. Luckily, he didn’t do something as drastic as putting them in the attic. Instead, he put them on top of the chest of drawers in our guest room. They pretty much looked just like they did downstairs, the difference being that no one uses that room except my mother when she comes into town.

*This could probably be an entire post on its own – the difference between us in regards to cleaning. I don’t mind a but of clutter but when I put it up, it goes where it’s supposed to, and when I clean, I’m full on – scrubbing, etc. He hates clutter and just shoves it out of sight no do I think he’s ever wiped down the kitchen counter. There might be nothing on it, but it’s dirty!  I’m sure a therapist would have a field day with what that says about the two of us.

First off, don’t mess with my books. Ever. It’s akin to coming to my kitchen and moving my appliances (which he did as well). My home is my workspace and I need to know where things are. That random piece of paper on the desk? It’s there because I need to fill it out later. Knives on the right hand side of the stove? Spoons on the left? That’s where I like them. That’s where I automatically reach for them. I don’t go into his office and move his stuff around, I don’t want him to move my stuff around in my office.

I made a reactionary decision: I need bookshelves, I’m turning the guest room into an office. We have been debating this idea for a while. I have always wanted a guest room for my mom when she comes to town, and if we have out-of-town guests. We don’t have very many out-of-town guests and, since my oldest has a bunk bed, both boys can sleep in one room and she can take my youngest’s bed. I’m sure that the fact I spent my girls weekend at an antique market and the itch to decorate was strong had something to do with my decision. Long story long: I sold the bedroom furniture and bought three bookshelves from IKEA for my books. As you can see, I thought I had more books than I did. Don’t worry. I’ll fill those shelves up.

Now, almost 700 words later, the point of this post: what is on my bookshelf? I’ve decided to go through, shelf by shelf, and show you my books! I know, what a thrilling topic for a post. But, I’ve set a goal to post every day this month and I need ideas.

I promise, no matter how desperate I get, I will not take a picture of my lamp with the button filled base and describe every button and marble. (If you would like to suggest post ideas, feel free to do so in the comments.)

I haven’t organized my shelves completely yet, but I have separated out the non-fiction books onto their own shelf. So, that’s what I’m going to show you first. Please, try to control your excitement.

Starting from left to right:

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen – I won this through a contest on Twitter. Yes, I started it. Yes, one day I will pick it back up again. No, I didn’t put it at the beginning to make myself seem deep and thoughtful. It just ended up there.

Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead – about the World War I battle; from the clearance bin at Half Priced Books.

Flu by Gina Kolata – this sat on the bedside table of my mother’s guest room for years. I would pick it up and read it when I was there without a book to read. It is really very good. I haven’t finished it but am fascinated by the Spanish Flu plague at the tail end of World War I.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – an account of one woman’s experiences in World War I. A classic that helped “both form and define the mood of its time” it is a must read for anyone interested in how war affects the generation that lives through it. Recommended by my brother.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale – the true story about the investigation of the murder of a little boy in June of 1860 in the English countryside. A scandalous and horrifying crime, Scotland Yard’s best investigator, Jonathan Whicher, believed someone in the household was the killer. With a circumstantial case and no confession, the case was never solved and Whicher was the object of scorn for suspecting the family. Pretty interesting stuff if you like history.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin – the essential biography of Austen.

A Fine Brush on Ivory by Richard Jenkyns – another Austen biography.

The Devil in the White City by Erick Larson – account of the Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer that used the fair to lure women to their death. Chilling.

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust – Death and the Civil War.

An Incomplete History of World War I by Edwin Kiester, Jr. – excellent overview of the war. Short chapters on little known subjects, such as the color of the French uniforms at the beginning of the war (bright red and blue) making the soldiers easy targets and therefore evolving to muted colors.

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen – written in 1931, an excellent history of the 1920s, before it became known as The Jazz Age and before FDR and his policies pulled the country out of the Depression.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan – history of the Dust Bowl.

The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, Before Amelia, Mavericks of the Sky, Amelia Earhart’s Daughters, West with the Night – research on women in the early days of flying for a novel I’m going to write.

The Star Machine, Leading Ladies, Leading Men, Being and Becoming – from my classic movie immersion phase of life.

The Artist Way, How to Write Killer Fiction, The Elements of Style, On Writing by Stephen King, Police Procedure and Investigation, Creating Character Emotions, Heroes and Heroines, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors – probably self-explanatory.

Three Copies of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly – because I’m a member of the Texas State Historical Society.

There you have it. My heavy reading. A good portion of these I’ve started and put aside for one reason or another. But, I will read them all eventually. I just need more time!

Now it’s your turn:

  • Have you read any of the books on my non-fiction shelf?
  • Do any of them sound interesting? If so, which one?
  • What non-fiction book would you like to recommend?
  • What would you like to see me post about for the next 25 days?

Book Review – A Lesson in Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Mystery by Jacqueline Winspear

I’m not sure how or when I first discovered the Maise Dobbs series. I think I happened upon the first book, Maisie Dobbs, at the library. Intrigued by the setting – England between the wars – I picked it up and immediately liked the character. It was an interesting mystery novel in that a large portion of it was a flashback to the character’s past. I can’t even remember her first case, truth be told. It was Maisie and her personal story that kept me interested. Since then, I have waited anxiously for the release of each book. Fans of the series are blessed that Winspear seems consistently capable of publishing a book per year. Each year, I read the book immediately and am always a bit let down at the end because I know that there is another year to wait for the next chapter in Maisie’s story.

Maisie’s story…that is what keeps me coming back. While I enjoy the mysteries and am especially pleased that each mystery reveals a bit of British history as it relates to World War I – most often events in the War that show the Crown and people in power in a less than favorable light – I do feel this aspect of the era is tapped out. At this point in the series it is fall 1932, 14 years since the Armistice, and that people are still holding on to the grudges and ills of the past seems more of storytelling crutch than a necessity. Maisie says, at least once a book, that she was a nurse in the war. Her friend, Priscilla, always gets teary eyed and worried when looking at her three sons, named after her three brothers lost in the war. Maisie’s loyal sidekick’s, Billy Beale, skills running communication wire during the war always comes in handy in some way. I understand, on one level, the need to give some historical character details for those new to the series, but there comes a point in real life where constant reference to “back in the day” becomes annoying. Unfortunately, that time has come for the Maisie Dobbs series.

Maybe Winspear has realized this. In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie goes undercover for the Secret Police (a job she has fallen into because of her late mentor’s spy past and her body of work as a respected private inquiry agent) to a small college in Cambridge. The goal of this college, St Francis, is to foster peace by bringing in students from across the world together in the hopes that they will return to their homeland and become advocates for peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. Of course, the British government thinks something shady is going on. It is Maisie’s job to find out just what. While she is there as a lecturer in Philosophy, the college’s founder is murdered. The story, from that point, has it’s feet in two different eras – the war of the past, which relates to the college founder’s murder, and the war of the future as Maisie uncovers what is a universal truth, no matter the era – young people are especially gullible to bombastic political rhetoric. In this case, during this time, the rhetoric is fascism.

Because the Maisie Dobbs series is so character driven, each mystery has somehow enabled Maisie to grow, to let go bit by bit the scars that World War I left on her (as a nurse in the war, natch).  As I said earlier, it is the character that keeps me coming back to these books. Watching her grow, while learning a bit about hidden British history, has been a treat. However, the mystery in A Lesson in Secrets seems to be there because that’s the formula Winspear has created. It doesn’t, in any way, move Maisie as a character forward. In fact, an aspect of it (mutiny and desertion on the front lines) was covered fully, and much more deftly, in a previous book. In short, it is the least engaging portion of the novel. Which is a major problem because Maisie spends most of her time trying to solve that murder instead of focusing on her secret agent job of uncovering the nefarious doings of easily manipulated young people.

Though I’m sure the British would like to wipe this stain from their history, it is a fact that many, many British were sympathetic to Hitler’s ideas when he first came on the scene. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward, was a supporter of Hitler. If he had not abdicated the throne for the American divorcee Mrs. Wallis Simpson, we would have a very different world today. Hitler and his brand of fascism was not seen as a threat to the Crown, some thought of it as a solution to their problems. The Crown was more worried with the Red Menace in Russia and were willing to hand wave the less palatable aspects of Hitler’ ideology. So, when Maisie goes to her Secret Service boss and tells him that there is evidence of fascism at St. Francis and not communism, he dismisses her concerns.

I’m sure it is very difficult for a 21st century author to write about that time – the rise of fascism – with the ignorance required to make it believable. The problem is we know their future. We know that England will change its tune when Hitler marches across Europe. We know that Hitler will kill millions of Jews in concentration camps. We know that those children in 1932 will be going off to war in 1939. It is difficult to write believable ignorant characters when such knowledge is almost part of our DNA.  For a few books now, Maisie and her mentor, Maurice, have dropped little hints of concerns about people like Oswald Mosely and “what’s happening in Europe.” Their opinions, about almost everything, seem a bit too on the nose.

Which brings me to a concern I have harbored for Maisie for a few books now. She is turning into a Mary Sue. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a definition:

A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in  fan fiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader.

In fan fiction, Mary Sues are usually author inserts – a character that is a thinly veiled avatar for the writer. While I don’t think that is the case with Maisie and Winspear, I do think that Maisie suffers from “idealized and hackneyed mannerisms and is lacking in noteworthy flaws.” Maisie always solves the case, knows the right thing to say and when, gets people to open up to her with little to no effort, investigates rings around the police, helps out her friends when they’re in need, is always compassionate to those that deserve it and holds negative opinions about no one in particular, except maybe men that avoided serving in the war, the government for not doing all they can for veterans and now has a wary eye on fascists. But, those people deserve to be disliked, don’t they? Her biggest flaw, as far as I can tell, is that she is emotionally closed off and is slow to open herself up to other people. She hides behind an overly professional, proper demeanor. She did make some progress in this book, however. She called men that she has known and worked with for years by their Christian names instead of their tongue twisting titles.  It’s only taken seven books.

I’m sure it sounds as if I didn’t like the book and I have grown tired of the character of Maisie. On the contrary, I did like the book (but didn’t love it) and I like Maisie immensely. But, I think it’s time for Winspear to deviate from her formula. When her mysteries stop directly affecting Maisie, they can no longer hold the book up. I spent the majority of A Lesson in Secrets skimming the mystery for more information about Maisie’s personal life. That is a major problem for a mystery novel, especially when the tidbits about her personal life are fleeting and rather shallow. But, more on that later.

I would like to see Winspear deviate completely for a book and maybe do an homage to Agatha Christie with a murder at a grand estate. Now that Maisie is in a relationship with a Viscount, it would be easy to put her in that situation. Make it even more interesting by setting it at her friend, Priscilla’s, house in France and have a Hercule Poirot type character that Maisie is competing with to solve the manor murder. Better still – have Maisie lose out on the unacknowledged competition and not solve the murder first.

Maisie Dobbs is the only mystery series that I follow because I’ve always believed that long, drawn-out series sacrifice character growth for the formula. The story should serve the character, not the character serving the story.  I had never felt that about Maisie, until this book. I felt a germ of dissatisfaction with the last book, The Mapping of Love and Death, with the sudden romance between Maisie and a thinly drawn character that has, however, been around from the beginning, James Compton. He spent the majority (read: all) of the first six books in Canada, with a one line mention here and there. He appears in book seven and, after a few chance encounters with Maisie, they start dating. In A Lesson in Secrets, they’re involved in a full on affair. But, Winspear spends too little time on the relationship and it feels shallow and rushed as a result. Compton as a character and the relationship as a sub-plot are so underdeveloped that it is difficult to feel or even understand Maisie’s happiness. This book would have been a perfect opportunity for Winspear to develop Maisie’s personal life. Instead, she has Compton in Canada for 3/4 of the book and Maisie worried, for a few paragraphs sprinkled over a couple hundred pages, if James is really in Canada or in London without telling her. Honestly, why would we care one way or the other? Winspear hasn’t taken the time to show the two together. We think Maisie is happy because she should be happy, not because we’ve been shown her happiness in any detail.

I will confess that part of my dissatisfaction with Maisie and Compton stems from the fact that there is another character that has been around for quite a while, has been more fully developed (but, honestly, only slightly) and seems much more suited to Maisie. Winspear has dropped enough hints about the two throughout the series that I believe Richard Stratton is the man Maisie will eventually fall in love with. But, here’s the thing: I don’t think I have the patience to wait.  It has taken Winspear eight books to cover three years of Maisie’s life. At that rate, and with Winspear publishing a book a year, it will take 16 years to get to Germany invading Poland, and 17 or 18 to the Battle of Britain. If Compton breaks her heart, or (my prediction) she dumps him because he will want her to quit her career and dedicate her life fully to being the wife of a Viscount and future Lord , it might take Maisie three or four years to get the courage to even go out on a date. That is 8-10 publishing years, right there. Then there’s the fact that, at the end of A Lesson in Secrets, Stratton resigns from Scotland Yard as a detective and is off to Essex as a math/physics teacher in a boarding school. Seriously? Really? I’m sorry. I’m just not that patient.

I can hear my detractors now: “If you’re just in it for the relationship then you don’t truly appreciate the series. It is a mystery first and foremost.” To that I disagree.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot novels were first and foremost mystery series. There is no character development in her investigators at all, and very little background given. Maisie Dobbs is primarily a character study. Maisie, in fact, stands in for all of England and the changes in society that were wrought by the Great War – the entrance of women into the workforce in professional capacity (Maisie as a successful woman in a man’s profession), the breakdown of the class system (Maisie having a relationship with a man that is well above her in class) and the loosening of rigid Victorian/Edwardian morals (as evidenced by the sexual nature of her affair with Compton. I do give Winspear full credit for giving Maisie a sex life and not making her a spinster, another reality of post-war Britain.). But, this has all been a long time coming. As a faithful reader and one that recommends these books to others, I have a right to be somewhat dissatisfied with the snail’s pace of character growth that Winspear has created.

Am I looking forward to the next book? Yes. Will I buy it and read it immediately on release? Most likely. Do I have high hopes that Winspear will deviate from her formula? Yes. Do I think she will? No. I respect that Maisie is Winspear’s character and she has the right to do with her as she likes. I also have the right to stop reading if I lose interest and, unfortunately, I’m perilously close.

A Lesson in Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear (★★☆☆☆)