Wednesday 3 July 2013

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

I'm not quite sure what it is I like so much about Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs novels. I suppose it is the kind of sensible, well-plotted story-telling that draws you in, and being set in England between the wars, there's a bucket-load of interesting social history going on.
    Maisie, now in her thirties, is a clever woman - she was spotted by psychologist and detective Maurice Blanche when she was a young maid for the rich and powerful Comptons. Blanche and Lady Compton send her to Girton but World War One comes along and before you know it she's a nurse at the front. There's a complication when she finds herself working alongside the love of her life, Simon Lynch, and both are almost killed by a stray shell.
    By the time she's learning her craft as a detective with Blanche, Simon is in a nursing home, his mind quite destroyed along with any hope of recovery. Maisie doggedly gets on with life and starting her own business, with Cockney sidekick and man Friday, Billy Beale.
    With An Incomplete Revenge, the Compton's son James is back from Canada, planning to buy an investment property and brickworks owned by the Sandermere family in Kent. A string of petty crime and arson has hounded the local town of Heronsdene, and James enlists Maisie to investigate. It is hop-picking time, a good opportunity for Billy and his family to have a break from London and earn some extra cash. Billy contrives to work on the Sandermere estate where the gypsies also set up camp and it is these transient workers who are blamed for a lot of the trouble.
    Heronsdene's history includes a terrible wartime tragedy, when a bomb was unloaded by a German zeppelin on its way home, setting fire to the bakery, and killing the Dutch family living above the shop. The locals however are strangely reticent when probed for further details. The town also has to put up with the drunken arrogance of Alfred Sandermere, who has the local constabulary lock up two youngsters from London, down for the hop-picking, when some silverware is stolen from his baronial pile.
    There's a lot going on here, and Maisie is soon busy getting to know the locals, including sparky newspaper reporter, Beattie Drummond, who wants the scoop on anything Maisie can dig up, and gypsy matriarch Beulah who teaches Maisie dowsing.
    While Maisie is getting in touch with the gypsy side of her ancestry, Simon's health takes a turn for the worse, and Maisie has to burn bridges with his snooty mother. If this all sounds a bit daft, well, yes it is a bit, but Maisie has enough gravitas to make it all work and the setting, plot and characterisation are satisfying enough to make the story reasonably entertaining.
    If I have a reservation about these novels, it is that Maisie is just a bit too good to be true, and as such, inclined to be rather superior and moralising. As a costermonger's daughter, you'd think she would be a bit more lively, with some interesting flaws and a decent sense of humour. She is, however, going along to weaving classes and is starting to wear bright colours, so perhaps by the next book, she'll be letting her hair down a bit. One can only hope.

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