Showing posts with label Maisie Dobbs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maisie Dobbs. Show all posts

27 July 2022

A Dangerous Place


After the tenth book in her Maisie Dobbs series, Jackie Winspear took a break.  She wrote a standalone, and then two years later she brought Maisie back in A Dangerous Place.  It seems to me to signal a significant - not to say wrenching – turn. 

A Dangerous Place finds Maisie in Gibraltar.  The year is 1937, and just across the line in Spain, the savagery of the Civil War is drawing in the major combatants.  Britain pretends neutrality; the Germans bomb Guernica, and the Russians support the Republicans, but this is a dress rehearsal for a wider war, between the Fascists and the Reds, and the larger pretense is that this is purely local, and of no consequence to the calculations of the Great Powers.  Gibraltar is awash in spies.  Although it appears sunlit and cheerful, the subtext is more akin to Casablanca than The Wizard of Oz.

I want to pause for a moment, and consider the background.  Europe in the 1930’s was a snakepit.  There was enormous income disparity and class division.  The old ruling class was terrified of Bolshevism; the working classes wanted a living wage.  Hitler didn’t arise in a vacuum.  There were the Black Hundreds in Russia, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Arrow Cross in Hungary.  The common denominator was of course hatred for the Jews – not that the Poles and the French (or the British and Americans, for that matter) were shy in this regard. 

My point, here, is that Maisie, herself a survivor of the first war, 1914-1918, a battlefield triage nurse, with combat fatigue – post-traumatic stress – is no stranger to these questions and concerns, but the stories hitherto have been domestic, by and large.  They hinge on the personal, and the close observation of detail.  You could easily call them cozies, and not be far off the mark.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  A Dangerous Place is a spy story.  Maisie even gets herself smuggled into wartime Madrid, as a visiting fireman, trading on a title she isn’t sure she deserves. 

The dangerous place, however, isn’t on the outside.  The turmoil, the doubt, the anxieties, are all internal.  The inciting, compelling incidents, the dramatic engines, if you will, take place off-stage.  The discovery of the dead guy, which sets the story in motion, happens in the reader’s peripheral vision.  You’re not there.  You’re told about it afterwards.  The huge hole in Maisie’s life, what happened in the two years she was absent from us, is explained (not explained, simply retailed) in a series of letters at the beginning of the book.  Winspear wants to get this plot furniture out of the way, and get on with the real story, which is Maisie’s disintegration and recovery.

There’s a moment about halfway through.  “She knew she had been remiss.  …It was long past time to bring her whole heart to the investigation, instead of leaving something of herself behind, curled up, lost, grieving, and afraid.”  Something of herself left behind.  This is really what the book’s about.  And although much of Maisie’s history, in the previous books, has been about unlocking and engaging with the past, this is the first time she’s seemed to actually come untethered, to disassociate – if that’s the right term.  She steps outside herself, she disengages, because if she were to stay inside, madness would beckon.  Maisie is a healer; she finds her purpose in repairing the damage other people have suffered.  Here, she has to turn her attention to herself, and apply those skills to her own incapacitating grief.  Rescue is in retreat.

This isn’t the book to start with, by any means.  I’ve mentioned before that I read Jackie’s memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, before I read any of the Maisie mysteries, and that’s what got me started.  I began with Maisie Dobbs, and read them serially.  A Dangerous Place packs the punch it does, for me, because it takes the familiar, and subverts expectations. 

12 May 2021

Maisie & Jackie

I came to Jacqueline Winspear late, and started reading her books back to front.  I reported here last January about her enormously engaging and quietly unsettling memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, and the first of her fiction I read was The Care and Management of Lies, a WWI standalone.  Lies is a novel of manners, in its breadth of purpose and minute attention to detail, but it’s a suspense story as well, where character collides with necessity.


My rule of thumb has come to be, that if I stumble across a writer new to me, I try to go back and start reading them from the beginning.  In this case, Jackie Winspear has a series; book sixteen of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, The Consequences of Fear, came out this past March.  Girding my loins, I began with the first, Maisie Dobbs. 


Spring, 1929.  This is intentionally misleading, because there’s a long flashback, mid-book, to Maisie’s early time in service as an upstairs maid, and then to the war, a dozen years before, when she was triage nurse.  We’re often told that flashbacks are a narrative kill switch, but it’s a device that works for Maisie.  For one thing, the tension between past and present is exactly what gives the story its punch, and both the hook and its resolution depend on looking the unburied past square in the eye.  It’s a story about consequences, even if they aren’t the consequences of our own choices. 


Two things of note, both related to period.  The books take place between the wars, and as the shadow of the first war falls across the stories, the coming of the second war is a grim foreboding.  But there’s no feeling of artifice, or metafiction.  Winspear isn’t trying to recreate or reshape the Golden Age – one thinks in particular of Dorothy Sayers, and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, very much grounded in the memory of the trenches – and you don’t feel she’s writing pastiche.  Winspear’s treatment of the time is far from nostalgic; it’s quite immediate.  The other thing is that barriers of class and gender are only dealt glancing blows.  They’re present, but they’re part of the fabric.  They don’t call attention to themselves.

It isn’t always the case that knowing something about a writer tells you anything about the writing, or gives us any special insight into the process, or the method, or even a worldview, but having read This Time Next Year, I do in fact think it sheds light on Maisie’s world, and how Jacqueline Winspear inhabits it.  There are influences and intersections, overlaps and dissolves.


“Maisie drove down to Kent in early September, when the spicy fragrance of the hops still hung in the warm air of an Indian summer.”  This is, unapologetically, transcribed from Jackie’s own girlhood.  She says, also, that knowing her grandfather’s fragility (from shellshock), but without understanding why, is part of what brought her to the primary matter of the novels, the injury that violence does to our sense of belonging.  It murders trust.


I don’t think the Maisie books are dark, but neither are they slight.  Winspear manages a sure balance between the night sweats and the sunny uplands, and gives us the confidence that simple decency is a lasting virtue.  It’s a comforting thought.