65 pages • 2 hours readJacqueline Winspear
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Maisie Dobbs is the first installment in Jacqueline Winspear’s historical mysteries featuring the eponymous private detective. Winspear was born and grew up in England with a grandfather who was a World War I veteran. His experiences inform some of the background of Maisie Dobbs. Several installments of the series have been New York Times bestsellers or finalists for Agatha or Macavity Awards, which signal achievements in the mystery genre.
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Content Warning: This work includes descriptions of severe physical injuries and war trauma, references to death by suicide, and an attempt at death by suicide.
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The work opens in 1929 London. Maisie Dobbs, a private detective in her early 30s, is setting up an independent office after the retirement of her mentor, Maurice Blanche. She meets the building’s caretaker, Billy Beale, who recognizes her from her wartime service as a nurse. Maisie is clearly reluctant to discuss this time in her life. Though she has a working-class background, Maisie’s first client is a wealthy publisher, Christopher Davenham, who believes his wife, Celia, is having an extramarital affair. Maisie follows Celia to a cemetery near Kent. Her intuition tells her that Celia is grieving deeply for the man buried there, whose headstone marks him only as “Vincent.” She learns that Vincent, and others nearby, died at a nearby farm for recovering World War I veterans called the Retreat.
Maisie meets Celia and learns that Vincent was her childhood love, who moved to the Retreat as his wartime injuries pushed him to cut ties with his family. Her interest is piqued by the range of deaths at the Retreat, and she decides to investigate further. Her curiosity becomes more urgent when her patron and friend Lady Rowan Compton reports that her son James wishes to join the Retreat.
To explain Maisie’s devotion to Lady Rowan, the novel’s second part covers her early life, from 1910 until 1917. Despite her aristocratic background, Lady Rowan Compton became devoted to women’s suffrage. In 1910, her longtime friend, doctor, scientist, and psychologist Maurice Blanche urged her to explore wider avenues of advancing social change, taking her to London’s East End to show her the extent of urban poverty. That same year, the young Maisie enters domestic service in Lady Rowan’s household because her costermonger father can no longer afford to send her to school. Maisie is drawn to the London mansion’s extensive library and is caught attempting to teach herself Latin. Remembering her promise to Maurice to take on the nature of social reform more broadly, Lady Rowan offers Maisie private tutoring with Maurice.
Maisie accepts, though her father is anxious about the demands on her and his place in her life, while the other servants are skeptical she will be able to find a place in society. Her roommate and fellow servant, Enid, is particularly resentful of Maisie’s ambitions, given that she is in a forbidden romance with the Comptons’ son, James.
Maisie considers giving up her studies because of her father’s fears and Enid’s anger. With help from Maurice and her father, Maisie takes a less demanding job at the Comptons’ country home, Chelstone Manor. The outbreak of war coincides with her university enrollment, and Maisie initially wishes to focus only on her work. She meets a dashing young officer, Simon Lynch, when her roommate persuades her to attend a party.
Soon after, Maisie sees Enid, who is now working in a munitions factory and is hopeful the new social mobility of war will allow her to reunite with James. Later that day, Maisie learns that Enid has died in an explosion at the munitions factory. To honor her friend, Maisie lies about her age and volunteers for nursing service, knowing she will likely be sent to France.
Upon her arrival overseas, Maisie meets Simon Lynch, and a romance blooms between them. Maisie is quickly drawn into the horrors and challenges of war. She spends her limited leaves from service with Simon. He proposes to her, but filled with feelings of impending doom, she says she cannot answer until the war ends.
The narrative returns to the present. Maisie meets with Lady Rowan, who is anxious about her son’s future at the Retreat. She enlists Billy Beale in the investigation, knowing he can infiltrate the community where she cannot. Billy, still certain he owes her a debt for saving his leg, agrees readily. Maisie and Billy agree to meet regularly and set up an emergency telephone. Maisie stays nearby with her father and Maurice, gathering data on Jenkins and the rash of deaths.
Billy is increasingly drawn to Jenkins and his care for the men, heightening Maisie’s anxiety. Maisie gathers intelligence about Jenkins’s past, increasingly concerned when she learns he spent time in a psychiatric facility for veterans. Maurice also considers the deaths suspicious. The case comes to a head when Billy realizes that one of the men who had wanted to leave is now missing. He calls Maisie, but Jenkins soon discovers him. Maisie rushes to him, horrified to discover Jenkins has staged a gallows and plans to execute Billy. Maisie captures the crowd’s attention by singing an old wartime song. The police arrive just as Maisie disarms Jenkins.
Maisie later explains that just as Billy was closing in on the truth, she learned more about Jenkins’s wartime service. He cultivated expertise in shooting men convicted of desertion, coming to despise them as a way to protect his mind from the horrors of his work. When Vincent Weathershaw discovered the truth of his past, Jenkins murdered him and began executing those who tried to leave.
Spurred by the conclusion to the case and its lesson about facing trauma, Maisie tells Billy what happened to Simon Lynch. The two were working in her field hospital together the day they saved Billy. Soon after, their tent was shelled, resulting in profound injuries for both of them. Simon is now a person living with significant disabilities, living in a rehabilitation hospital.
To bring closure to the case, Maisie finally visits Simon in the hospital where he now lives. She apologizes to him for not visiting sooner or accepting his proposal. She feels a new peace with the ending to their story. As the novel closes, Billy works as Maisie’s assistant and summons her to Scotland Yard for their next case.
By Jacqueline Winspear