Last spring, I read the first two books in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series in quick succession. They seemed like they should be great reads. The setting, England just after World War I, is fascinating. Maisie, the detective heroine, is independent, intelligent, and haunted by her own experiences in the war. And I had the pleasure of reading the books while I was vacationing in London, so I could walk down the very streets that Maisie walked down. A perfect formula.
Ultimately, however, I found the books unsatisfying. Maisie is indeed an appealing character, and the books do a great job of showing how World War I had a devastating effect on an entire generation. But there was something in the writing that kept me from being fully drawn in. I think a lot of it has to do with something that would appear to be a strength in mystery writing–Winspear’s meticulous attention to detail. Every movement, no matter how small, is carefully described and explained. I believe that Winspear’s intent is to demonstrate just how observant Maisie is, and how even tiny mannerisms can reveal a person’s character. But not every movement is significant, and not every action needs explanation. In the end, the narrative voice just felt unnatural, and I decided that the series wasn’t a good fit for me.
After deciding to abandon the series, I saw Dorothy’s post on how much she enjoyed the series on audio and how she noticed more of the flaws when she read it in print. Her complaints about the print version were similar to mine, so when I saw the audio version of the third book at the library I thought I’d give it a try.
In Pardonable Lies, Maisie is hired to verify that the son of a wealthy barrister is indeed dead. She also becomes involved with the police’s case against a young women who is accused of murder and helps a friend find out what happened to her brother who died a mysterious death during the war. Soon, a couple of freak accidents make it clear that one of these cases is putting Maisie’s life in danger.
As in the earlier books, the various mysteries intersect with Maisie’s own personal life and with the struggles common to people of her period. That was the best thing about the previous books, and it continued to be true here. Unfortunately, the problems I had with the writing were also evident, although less annoying on audio. I usually listen to audiobooks in the car, so I do get distracted from listening. Because Winspear mentions and explains so many details, I never really lost the drift of the story the way I sometimes do with audiobooks. Plus, the reader, Orlagh Cassidy, was a pleasure to listen to. She gave each character a distinct voice, and her tone made it seem that she was genuinely enjoying telling the story. I don’t think I would have liked the book much in print, but my standards for audio are not very high. (Can I follow the story? Do I feel like I’m missing much? Is it better than drive-time radio?) Even books by writers whose work I generally don’t enjoy can be entertaining listens. (Philippa Gregory and Jodi Picoult being two examples.) Maisie Dobbs on audio didn’t blow me away, but I’d certainly listen to the sequels if I come across them.