A Lesson In Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Novel Hardcover – Mar 14 2011
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Amazon Exclusive: Lee Child Interviews Jacqueline Winspear
Jacqueline Winspear, like her interviewer, the iconic, bestselling author Lee Child, originally hails from the United Kingdom. A Lesson in Secrets is her eighth novel featuring psychologist-investigator and former WW1 nurse, Maisie Dobbs. Here she talks with Child about her work on the series, and her enduring interest in the aftermath of WW1.
Lee Child: People are often surprised that I'm a huge Maisie Dobbs fan, because Jack Reacher is all about a kind of Spartan American masculinity, and Maisie Dobbs is all about a kind of feminine English refinement. But they're both strong, unconventional people. Perhaps that's the cross-genre appeal? Do you find that Maisie attracts an unusual mix of readers?
Jacqueline Winspear: I’m thrilled you’re such a Maisie Dobbs fan--and you can count me among those millions of Jack Reacher fans. Maisie and Reacher are both unconventional, but I believe another factor in their cross-genre appeal is that both have endured life-changing challenges. Maisie attracts diverse readers: men and women, all age groups, veterans, nurses, college students, people who have faced troubles, and people interested in the era.
LC: And in fact your novels are driven by violence far worse than mine--off the page, granted, but there’s no getting around the fact that at the heart of your books is the aftermath of a horrendous war, with its attendant violence and death. How do you see the role of violence in your novels?
JW: I think you hit the theme there with “aftermath.” The violence in my books is that searing, painful residue left by the passing of a terrible time, when people were also crushed emotionally by the deep losses over a four-year period. In addition, there’s that element of violence that lingers--in Among the Mad, for example--when war’s tentacles will not let go. We see that again today in the stories of veterans who are still fighting their wars, but the conflict is raging inside them.
LC: As a kid in England I remember seeing hundreds of maimed old men, and hundreds of lonely old women. My grandfather was an example of the first, and two great-aunts examples of the second - sad reminders of a terrible time. Was it something similar that drew you to the First World War and the “Between the Wars” era that followed?
JW: I have the same memories--my grandfather was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, and my grandmother was partially blinded at the Woolwich Arsenal, in an explosion that wounded her sister and killed several girls working alongside her. There were the elderly spinsters in my neighborhood, and for each there was that old sepia photograph on the mantelpiece, of a sweetheart or brother lost to war. Those childhood memories led me to think a lot about what happens after war is done. As a character says in Birds of a Feather, “That’s the trouble with war; it lives on inside the living.”
LC: I was introduced to Maisie Dobbs by my wife, who passed through an airport and picked up the first in the series. She loved it, and urged me to read it, and I'm glad I did. It's one of the very, very few series we both love equally--in fact, perhaps the only one. Is this typical of your readers?
JW: I receive so many emails from fans who tell me that the books are read by all members of the family. And many women tell me that it was their husband who first discovered Maisie. The books are as accessible to readers aged about fourteen as they are to seniors. There are few things today that all age groups within a family can engage in, discuss and get excited about, so it’s lovely when I hear that family members are awaiting the next book so they can all read it.
LC: Maisie is definitively feminine, but she's running a business, and poking around in a "man's world," which is true to the times, and indicative of the early stages of feminism in the West. Was that something you wanted to explore?
JW: It would have been difficult to introduce a character such as Maisie and not explore the fact that the Great War left so many women to forge a life alone. If there was one thing I wanted to do, it was to bring the spirit of that generation to the character of Maisie Dobbs. Of course, some women floundered and lived lonely lives, but there were a great many who blazed a trail. I believe an archetype was born at that time--the stoic British woman who is independent and more than a little opinionated, with a heart of gold under a tough exterior, and who knows what it is to endure. Dame Maggie Smith has played that character in several films.
LC: Maisie understands human psychology in a way that seems to be an early and experimental pre-echo of what we'd now call criminal profiling. It's a huge part of both her process and her appeal. Where did that come from?
JW: That developed in a very organic way. Having established her as a “sensitive,” I wanted to give her real expertise--and there are historical underpinnings to this aspect of her character. Maisie studied the Moral Sciences curriculum at Girton College when psychology was in its infancy. I have the prospectus from 1913, and about one third of the course was the study of modern psychology. It was a time of great experimentation, so Maisie’s processes have their roots in real practices considered innovative at the time.
LC: One of your decisions I admire is the way you have moved the series forward in time so firmly. Most writers would have continued mining the same immediate post-war seam forever. What was your thinking behind that? And how do you keep the character fresh as the series itself develops?
JW: I once heard you say at a conference, “The reader comes back to a series, not to find out what the sleuth does with the case, but what the case does to the sleuth.” I agree. We are all impacted not only by our past, but by our current circumstances and those around us. You always put Reacher in a new area, be it small town or big city; and through his wandering we learn a lot about him. I work with the geography of time. Not everyone likes change and many readers would like Maisie Dobbs to stay as she is in a given book. But life’s not like that--the goalposts tend to move when we are at our most comfortable, and I want to keep the series fresh.
LC: I’m often asked if I have a favorite book within my series, so now I’m turning the tables: Do you have favorites among your novels?
JW: That’s such a difficult question, because each book not only represents a different place on my journey as a writer, but has been inspired by something that touched me. I think Maisie Dobbs will always be very tightly held in my affections, because it was my first book and was written at a difficult time in my life, when I was recovering from a horrible accident. The other choice would be The Mapping of Love and Death, because it was inspired by the true story of a soldier whose remains lay under Belgian soil for some 90 years until unearthed by a farmer. I learned more about him when I became involved in the quest to discover his origins. When I look at that book, I think of a young man lost to war who was never identified and who was eventually laid to rest as “A Soldier of The Great War, Known Unto God.” I ache for the parents who never knew where their son died, for he had probably been listed as “Missing, Presumed Dead.”
“Maisie is one of the great fictional heroines, equal parts haunted and haunting.” (Parade)
“The combination of period detail and intricate storytelling makes A Lesson in Secrets seem distant enough to be romantic but sufficiently modern to engage our sympathies.” (Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal)
“With an affecting storyline and graceful prose, Winspear has again created a powerful and complex novel, one that will linger in memory as a testament to her talent and her humanity.” (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
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In the meantime, Billy Beale works on the case brought to them by Sandra, a young woman whose husband died due to an accident at work. As the story progresses, both Maisie and Billy suspect the accident wasn't one at all. Maisie's old friend Priscilla and her family are drawn into this portion of the story.
Maisie's relationship with her new love progresses slowly in this outing, but those who read the Dobbs books know it's in Maisie's nature to take things methodically. Her dad is also making some changes in his life. Readers who like the earlier stories of Maisie dealing with repercussions of the First World War may dislike signs of the next appearing, but Winspear is not allowing Maisie to remain static in a postwar world. Several of the cards are played early in the mystery, but all-in-all I found the story and characters appealing.
In this, the seventh book in the series, Maisie temporarily leaves her assistant, Billy Beale in charge of her private detective agency to assist the Special Branch in their observation of a peace movement. While the Special Branch is concentrating on Communism, Maisie is concerned with the enthusiasm of the group for the new National Socialist movement in Germany and their leader, Adolph Hitler. Maisie is virtually undercover, teaching at a new college that brings together students from many countries to pursue peace.
This is a worthy addition to the series and shows other aspects of Maisie's life-a growing love affair, the inheritance from her mentor, her concern for Billy and his family still grieving the loss of a child. And there is a murder to be solved.
This book, as the others, brings alive this period and helps show the steps toward a new conflict that seems only dimly in the future. I think this is a worthy series and one I highly recommend for both entertainment and understanding of a most interesting time.
And unlike the Charles Todd series with the depressed/dpressing Ian Rutledge, the Maisie Dobbs books give us a character who is forever scarred by the Great War, yes, but who is also capable of moving on.
That said, I have some problems with the direction this move is taking.
Maybe _the_ most fascinating element of these novels has been the tension generated by the English class system. Maisie, who started life as a housemaid, has been extensively sponsored by her employers -- educated, privately at first, then at Cambridge, she is able to start a detective business, to continue her friendship with an upper-class college chum, and to fend off a variety of marriage proposals.
In this novel, however, Maisie seems to be edging into the middle class. Winspeare is British, but she lives in the States now, and I'm wondering if she hasn't caught a bad case of social mobility. Why can Maisie not continue to be an admirable, smart, accomplished working class woman? Why?
Maisie, now a woman of means, has removed herself entirely from any day-to-day problems with money and access, and is beginning to devote herself to philanthropy. If this were linked more to a sense of her own humble beginnings, I'd not object. But when she thinks of herself as as one of a generation of women who inspire the next gen. to seek education and jobs, she fails to mention how fairy-tale fortunate she herself has been. Taking Maisie back to Cambridge as a lecturer is risky on several levels. Even with the strange little made-up college, there's an alarming number of pitfalls here.
This doesn't detract from the 5-star rating, but it does give me pause and makes me concerned about the direction Winspeare is choosing for the series. Maisie seems to have undergone a sea change between this novel and The Mapping of Love and Death. The change is so marked that I looked online to see if I had missed a book.
Change is good, but I'd like to watch it happen.
Amazon Vine introduce me to heroine Maisie Dobbs with The Mapping of Love and Death. I loved it so much that I've gone back to read the first two books in the series, and I dare say that I'll read the others, too. Fortunately, however, you don't HAVE to have read the earlier books to enjoy this one. While it'd probably help to have a sense of where Maisie came from, each of Winspear's books is impressively self-contained.
In this book: It's 1932, and Maisie is asked to help out the British Secret Service. She's sent to be an assistant professor at a college near Cambridge, one that was founded by a well-known pacifist (one of his books, ostensibly written for children, is rumored to have caused mutinies when soldiers in the Great War read it and decided to lay down their weapons). SOMEthing is going on at the school, and the Secret Service wants insider information. Before long, however, there's a dead body at the college... and Maisie finds herself involved in finding the murderer.
One element of the novel is, of course, its timeframe. Suburbs are novel new ideas. The car mechanic wistfully wishes for the good old days when he could take care of horses instead. There's "some trouble" going on in Spain. The college is invited to participate in a debate about the relevance of the National Socialist German Workers Party to Britain -- I could almost hear the ominous music in the background.
What makes this book special is Winspear's quiet writing style. Her books do not have derring-do and adventure and shoot-outs. This is gentle English conversations over tea. Introspection. Contemplation. Maisie's primary skill is an ability to *notice things*, and Winspear takes you along on her observations. There's also really good writing that doesn't get in the way of storytelling: "There was a poverty here that clung to the soul, as if it were the fetid ocher smog that lingered above the dark water of the River Thames."
I completely enjoyed this book. I think you will, too.
The book seems to function solely as a vehicle for Ms. Winspear to tell us about conscientious objection in Britain during World War I, and about how the powers that were, were threatened in the thirties by pacifism and Bolshevism, underestimating nascent Nazism. There's a story in there, but it didn't turn out to be a Maisie Dobbs novel. The prose is flat and monotonous, events happen to Maisie and the other characters, but the characters don't develop. Particularly irritating is Maisie's foray into teaching philosophy, which is barely touched on at all except in a vague and idealistic way--all Maisie seems to do is correct essays (on???), and write the words "good" and "evil" on her blackboard. Of course she is a marvelous teacher, succeeding as splendidly at that as she does at everything else except her love life, which is depicted flaccidly, without a hint of real engagement. This reader no longer cares whether she and James find happiness together.
Miss Winspear's earlier novels in this series are far more lively. Try one of them instead. This flat meander over England lacks the spark of life, as bloodless as the university murder it centers on.