Friday, June 19, 2009

Birds of a Feather (A Maisie Dobbs Mystery) by Jacqueline Winspear

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (August 2, 2005)
  • Price: $14.00
  • ISBN: 0143035304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143035305

When I was recently invited to join a small book club under the auspices of something of a celebrity librarian where I live--she organizes successful events and authors readings, many of which I have attended over the years--I couldn't resist accepting. What kind of books might this small and intimate grouping of admirers of fine literature read? A list of books covering the next few months to come was intriguingly diverse in style, genre, time period. This would be an interesting exploration, no doubt pushing me to read books I might never have otherwise read.

Including the first book on the list: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. Two of this series, in fact. The first one, then a second of our own choosing. I headed for the library, but the first book was off the shelf. Perhaps another book club member. So I chose another in the series, skimming through several. I was not familiar with the author or the series, as mysteries, admittedly, are not a genre I favor. As soon as I opened the book to read, I was reminded why. They all seem painfully alike. The only difference here is that Maisie Dobbs, detective-psychologist, was female rather than the tiresome Bogey-type that seems to keep popping up in other detective novels. And you know that "Girl Friday"? The fawning, too-sexy-for-her-own-good type who is doggedly devoted to Bogey to the point of being codependent? In this book, Maisie's sidekick would be a cockney called Billy Beale, a retired vet with a bum leg. Yes, he's doggedly devoted if blessedly married. I rolled my eyes. I had to wonder, why do readers so enjoy these types of series, alike as a stack of pancakes, with characters all cast from the same mold, predictable as formula? I don't get it.

And then, of course, I got immersed in the book.

It took a while. And I did roll my eyes once more as I read an editorial miss, where a main character, Joseph Waite, a wealthy man who hires Maisie to find and bring home his missing daughter (32 years old! I'd be missing, too!) grinds out his cigar after enjoying his smoke. Grinds? Mind you, as editor-in-chief of a literary ezine called The Smoking Poet, featuring an extensive page on cigars called Cigar Lounge, I know a thing or three about cigars. You never grind out a cigar. Cigarettes, yes, but cigars give out toxic, bitter fumes when so ground. Any cigar smoker worth her ash knows this. Adding insult to cigar injury, Mr. Waite has the seemingly same cigar magically reappear in his fingers a page later as he and Maisie stroll the gardens. Oops.

Yet once the smoke had cleared, I found myself reading the book more and more often, each time for a longer sit. The British author, Jacqueline Winspear, knows her twists and turns. She also does her homework well, if not particularly on the grinding of a stogie, because the story is rich with historical detail and color. It is set in London, spring of 1930. There are scenes in city and outlying areas, flashbacks to The Great War, and doings and ongoings with coppers in Scotland Yard's Murder Squad. Keeping this time period in mind, the accomplishments of Maisie Dobbs are very respectable. Once a battlefield nurse, she has now made her place in a male-dominated field of private investigators, so not only does she need to solve her case, she must solve it with more finesse than any male counterpart.

I'm liking this.

Unlike most detective novels, this detective is also, happily, no womanizer. What a relief. A woman herself, she deals with the opposite sex respectfully, even while demanding respect. Yet, just like a woman, when she is dealing with a heartbroken victim, of whatever gender, she is compassionate and kind, gathering her information even while soothing the broken and setting things right. No damsel in distress she! Indeed, Maisie's great love is a soldier who is so wounded in war that she now visits him regularly in a home, even though he cannot any longer respond to her presence. An under story here is that Maisie is struggling to find the right place for her heart: to remain faithful to her love, a physically and mentally broken man, yet open it to a future possibility of happiness. She is not without her suitors, including a detective inspector at Scotland Yard, who is at times ego-wounded when Maisie solves cases that leave him floundering and accusing an innocent man. And Doctor Dene, a kinder and more considerate sort, who seems to be something of a kindred spirit. Yet these hinting-of-future-romance characters never become more than passing background to the story--a wise choice on the author's part, or this would move too far into another, cheaper genre. (Hurrah for books about women that aren't always centered around romance!)

Maisie pursues her clues with dogged determination yet light touch. Adding to that feminine approach, she seems to use intuition as much as logic to solve her case, and is quite comfortable doing so. Sidekick, Billy Beale, the limping veteran, is a good help to her, but she notices his quiet struggle with an addiction often seen in veterans at that time, too--cocaine. A history lesson woven into the story tells us soldiers were given morphine and other painkillers in unmeasured doses on the battlefield, often leading to addiction. Maisie helps Billy get back on the straight and narrow perhaps a little too easily, and without interrupting her pursuit of the missing heiress, now joined in a tightening circle of two other women, found murdered.

The book title comes from the link between all three women: white feathers. Another fascinating historical sidenote, but one I won't here reveal. Maisie notes this tiny detail and eventually catches the bird, so to speak. It is a pretty remarkable scene when she does. Masterful, even. One very much, I think, requiring a female author.

Judge for yourself. As for me, I'm pleased to have been nudged into reading this detective novel, even as I continue to be less than a fan of the genre, but a fan won over by Maisie Dobbs.

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