I'm an avid reader of the vintage tea cozy mystery, from the inspired puzzles of Agatha Christie to the quiet grace of GK Chesterton's books to the sublime "novels-with-detective-interruptions" of Dorothy L. Sayers (my all-time favorite author). As prolific as many of those authors were, however, they just aren't writing any more books. So I occasionally pick up modern tea cozies, in the great good hope that I might have found another author or series to help stretch out the time in between rereading Gaudy Night.
Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series has not proven to be such a stopgap.
Briefly, the first two novels center around the character of one Maisie Dobbs, a working class London girl who, despite her native brilliance, goes into service in the years before WWI to help her costermonger father with the bills. Her smarts bring her to the attention of her appropriately wealthy, educated, and philanthropic employers (she gets caught sneaking into the library after hours to teach herself Latin), and they naturally respond by providing access to tutoring from a brilliant psychologist, and later send her off to Cambridge. She leaves school to become a nurse on the front lines, receives terrible (but mostly hidden) wounds, watches her friends and comrades die horrible deaths, and loses her beaux to some artillery shelling. After the war, Dobbs completes her education and undertakes to study with her former tutor, eventually styling herself an "investigator," and opens up a business. It's worth noting that the backstory, which is provided via flashback and takes up the bulk of Maisie Dobbs, is ridiculous but reasonably engaging. It's the detective bits that really drag the books down. The central mysteries in both novels revolve around the aftermath of the war (not a terrible idea; Sayers did the same thing regularly), but are so slight as to be completely forgettable.
Winspear, as is apparently required of many mystery authors, gives her central character a thing. You know what I mean, the thing that makes her character unique. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, for example, doesn't leave his Manhattan brownstone. (Jared reminds me that "Sherlock Holmes takes cocaine and is mean to everyone" and "Kinky Friedman is Kinky Friedman") I don't dislike the thing, as such - it's clearly really important when Wolfe heads into the great outdoors, or Holmes gets bored and shoots up. Dobbs' thing, however, is pretty trying. She consciously undertakes to emulate the physicality of people she's trying to understand, from paying clients to random people on the street. This allows her to develop major insights into their psychologies, and eventually solve the mysteries. It's also incredibly artificial, and never failed to derail my suspension of disbelief:
Celia Davenham walked with purpose, her head lowered but her step firm. Maisie watched her, mentally noting every detail of the other woman's demeanor. Her shoulders were held too square, hunched upward as if on a coat hanger. Maisie copied the woman's posture as she walked, and immediately felt her stomach clutch and a shiver go through her. Then sadness descended, like a dark veil across her eyes. Maisie knew that Celie Devenham was weeping as she walked, and that in her sadness she was searching for strength.1
All this Maisie gets just by copying the woman's body language. Oh, also Maisie's feet are chronically cold. Because of the war, you see.
Honestly, I don't recall the major mystery of the first book, Maisie Dobbs, despite having read it no more than four months ago. (A fact that's significant in and of itself.) The mystery in the second novel, Birds of a Feather, is likewise slight, and hinges both upon coincidence and upon Winspear's hiding a major clue - three times! - from the audience.
In hiding that clue and requiring that coincidental meeting, Winspear totally lost me. What made the great mystery novels of the early 20th century great was, in part, many authors' glib but ultimately serious agreement amongst themselves not to hide clues from readers, or make solutions depend on coincidence. In 1929, more than a dozen detective authors, including Sayers, Christie, Chesterton, EC Bentley, and FW Croft, formed the Detection Club, which required that members adhere to a number of rules. During the just barely tongue-in-cheek initiation ceremony, the President would require candidates to agree "that your Detectives shall well and truly detect the Crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them, and not placing reliance upon nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?" And, the President would continue, do you "solemnly swear never to conceal a Vital Clue from the Reader?"2
The Detection Club was formed in part as a reaction to the mode of writing detective fiction popularized by the likes of AC Doyle, where the author allows the detective access to clues denied the reader - such as Holmes' annoying habit of grandstanding for Watson by announcing where a client lived, simply by virtue of his personal encyclopedic knowledge of the color-variations of London area topsoil. Doyle wouldn't describe the hapless client's shoes as covered in red dirt, for example, but Holmes he'd write as both seeing the (invisible to the reader) dirt and knowing (as an average reader wouldn't) what that red dirt signified.
The authors who made up the Detection Club more or less stuck by the rules they laid out for themselves, and I have a hard time forgiving authors who don't (whether or not they're familiar with the DC's standards). This is partially because I like to puzzle over the mysteries myself, and being denied full access to every clue the investigator has offends my sense of fair play. But, more importantly, making the solution dependent upon silly contrivances like a coincidental meeting at a mental hospital, or lame physio-psychological posturing (literally, in Maisie Dobbs' case!) destroy my ability to inhabit and enjoy fictional worlds.
Next time I'll skip the Winspear and head straight back into Gaudy Night.
Tube journeys: a couple nights at home.
1. Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs. Penguin Books, 2003. 22.
2. Quoted in David Coomes, Dorothy L. Sayers, A Careless Rage for Life. Lion Publishing, 1992. 110.