Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Series #1)

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Series #1)

by Jacqueline Winspear

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"A female investigator every bit as brainy and battle-hardened as Lisbeth Salander."
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air, on Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs got her start as a maid in an aristocratic London household when she was thirteen. Her employer, suffragette Lady Rowan Compton, soon became her patron, taking the remarkably bright youngster under her wing. Lady Rowan's friend, Maurice Blanche, often retained as an investigator by the European elite, recognized Maisie’s intuitive gifts and helped her earn admission to the prestigious Girton College in Cambridge, where Maisie planned to complete her education.
The outbreak of war changed everything. Maisie trained as a nurse, then left for France to serve at the Front, where she found—and lost—an important part of herself. Ten years after the Armistice, in the spring of 1929, Maisie sets out on her own as a private investigator, one who has learned that coincidences are meaningful, and truth elusive. Her very first case involves suspected infidelity but reveals something very different.
In the aftermath of the Great War, a former officer has founded a working farm known as The Retreat, that acts as a convalescent refuge for ex-soldiers too shattered to resume normal life. When Fate brings Maisie a second case involving The Retreat, she must finally confront the ghost that has haunted her for over a decade.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569477229
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/01/2003
Series: Maisie Dobbs Series , #1
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 294
Sales rank: 2,408
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of New York Times bestsellers Among the Mad and An Incomplete Revenge, as well as eight other Maisie Dobbs novels. Originally from Kent, England, she now lives in California. This is her first book in the critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling Maisie Dobbs series.


Ojai, California

Date of Birth:

April 30, 1955

Place of Birth:

Weald of Kent, England


The University of London¿s Institute of Education

Read an Excerpt


Even if she hadn’t been the last person to walk through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station, Jack Barker would have noticed the tall, slender woman in the navy blue, thigh-length jacket with a matching pleated skirt short enough to reveal a well-turned ankle. She had what his old mother would have called “bearing.” A way of walking, with her shoulders back and head held high, as she pulled on her black gloves while managing to hold on to a somewhat battered black document case.
        “Old money,” muttered Jack to himself. “Stuck-up piece of nonsense.”
       Jack expected the woman to pass him by, so he stamped his feet in a vain attempt to banish the sharp needles of cold creeping up through his hobnailed boots. He fanned a half dozen copies of the Daily Express over one arm, anticipating a taxi-cab screeching to a halt and a hand reaching out with the requisite coins.
       “Oh, stop—may I have an Express please, love?” appealed a voice as smooth as spooned treacle.
       The newspaper vendor looked up slowly, straight into eyes the color of midnight in summer, an intense shade that seemed to him to be darker than blue. She held out her money.
       “O’ course, miss, ’ere you are. Bit nippy this morning, innit?”
       She smiled, and as she took the paper from him before turning to walk away, she replied, “Not half. It’s brass monkey weather; better get yourself a nice cuppa before too long.”
       Jack couldn’t have told you why he watched the woman walk all the way down Warren Street toward Fitzroy Square. But he did know one thing: She might have bearing, but from the familiar way she spoke to him, she certainly wasn’t from old money.
       At the end of Warren Street, Maisie Dobbs stopped in front of the black front door of a somewhat rundown Georgian terraced house, tucked the Daily Express under her left arm, carefully opened her document case, and took out an envelope containing a letter from her landlord and two keys. The letter instructed her to give the outside door a good shove after turning the key in the lock, to light the gas lamp at the base of the stairs carefully, to mind the top step of the first flight of stairs—which needed to be looked at—and to remember to lock her own door before leaving in the evening. The
letter also told her that Billy Beale, the caretaker, would put up her nameplate on the outside door if she liked or, it suggested, perhaps she would prefer to remain anonymous.
       Maisie grinned. I need the business, she said to herself. I’m not here to remain anonymous.
       Maisie suspected that Mr. Sharp, the landlord, was unlikely to live up to his name, and that he would pose questions with obvious answers each time they met. However, his directions were apt: The door did indeed need a shove, but the gas lamp, once lit, hardly dented the musky darkness of the stairwell. Clearly there were some things that needed to be changed, but all in good time. For the moment Maisie had work to do, even if she had no actual cases to work on.
       Minding the top step, Maisie turned right on the landing and headed straight for the brown painted door on the left, the one with a frosted glass window and a To Let sign hanging from the doorknob. She removed the sign, put the key into the lock, opened the door, and took a deep breath before stepping into her new office. It was a single room with a gas fire, a gas lamp on each wall, and one sash window with a view of the building across the street and the rooftops beyond. There was an oak desk with a matching chair of dubious stability, and an old filing cabinet to the right of the window.
       Lady Rowan Compton, her patron and former employer, had been correct; Warren Street wasn’t a particularly salubrious area. But if she played her cards right, Maisie could afford the rent and have some money left over from the sum she had allowed herself to take from her savings. She didn’t want a fancy office, but she didn’t want an out-and-out dump either. No, she wanted something in the middle, something for everyone, something central, but then again not in the thick of things. Maisie felt a certain comfort in this small corner of Bloomsbury. They said that you could sit down to tea with just about anyone around Fitzroy Square, and dine with a countess and a carpenter at the same table, with both of them at ease in the company. Yes, Warren Street would be good for now. The tricky thing was going to be the nameplate. She still hadn’t solved the problem of the nameplate.
       As Lady Rowan had asked, “So, my dear, what will you call yourself? I mean, we all know what you do, but what will be your trade name? You can hardly state the obvious. ‘Finds missing people, dead or alive, even when it’s themselves they are looking for’ really doesn’t cut the mustard. We have to think of something succinct, something that draws upon your unique talents.”
       “I was thinking of ‘Discreet Investigations,’ Lady Rowan. What do you think?”
       “But that doesn’t tell anyone about how you use your mind, my dear—what you actually do.”
       “It’s not really my mind I’m using, it’s other people’s. I just ask the questions.”
       “Poppycock! What about ‘Discreet Cerebral Investigations’?”
       Maisie smiled at Lady Rowan, raising an eyebrow in mock dismay at the older woman’s suggestion. She was at ease, seated in front of the fireplace in her former employer’s library, a fireplace she had once cleaned with the raw, housework-roughened hands of a maid in service.
       “No, I’m not a brain surgeon. I’m going to think about it for a bit, Lady Rowan. I want to get it right.”
       The gray-haired aristocrat leaned over and patted Maisie on the knee. “I’m sure that whatever you choose, you will do very well, my dear. Very well indeed.”
       So it was that when Billy Beale, the caretaker, knocked on the door one week after Maisie moved into the Warren Street office, asking if there was a nameplate to put up at the front door, Maisie handed him a brass plate bearing the words “M. Dobbs. Trade and Personal Investigations.”
       “Where do you want it, miss? Left of the door or right of the door?”
       He turned his head very slightly to one side as he addressed her. Billy was about thirty years old, just under six feet tall, muscular and strong, with hair the color of sun-burnished wheat. He seemed agile, but worked hard to disguise a limp that Maisie had noticed immediately.
       “Where are the other names situated?”
       “On the left, miss, but I wouldn’t put it there if I were you.”
       “Oh, and why not, Mr. Beale?”
       “Billy. You can call me Billy. Well, people don’t really look to the left, do they? Not when they’re using the doorknob, which is on the right. That’s where the eyes immediately go when they walk up them steps, first to that lion’s ’ead door knocker, then to the knob, which is on the right. Best ’ave the plate on the right. That’s if you want their business.”
       “Well, Mr. Beale, let’s have the plate on the right. Thank you.”
       “Billy, miss. You can call me Billy.”
       Billy Beale went to fit the brass nameplate. Maisie sighed deeply and rubbed her neck at the place where worry always sat when it was making itself at home.
       “Miss . . .”
       Billy poked his head around the door, tentatively knocking at the glass as he removed his flat cap.
       “What is it, Mr. Beale?”
       “Billy, miss. Miss, can I have a quick word?”
       “Yes, come in. What is it?”
       “Miss, I wonder if I might ask a question? Personal, like.” Billy continued without waiting for an answer. “Was you a nurse? At a casualty clearing station? Outside of Bailleul?”
       Maisie felt a strong stab of emotion, and instinctively put her right hand to her chest, but her demeanor and words were calm.
       “Yes. Yes, I was.”
       “I knew it!” said Billy, slapping his cap across his knee. “I just knew it the minute I saw those eyes. That’s all I remember, after they brought me in. Them eyes of yours, miss. Doctor said to concentrate on looking at something while ’e worked on me leg. So I looked at your eyes, miss. You and ’im saved my leg. Full of shrapnel, but you did it, didn’t you? What was ’is name?”
       For a moment, Maisie’s throat was paralyzed. Then she swallowed hard. “Simon Lynch. Captain Simon Lynch. That must be who you mean.”
       “I never forgot you, miss. Never. Saved my life, you did.”
       Maisie nodded, endeavoring to keep her memories relegated to the place she had assigned them in her heart, to be taken out only when she allowed.
       “Well, miss. Anything you ever want doing, you just ’oller. I’m your man. Stroke of luck, meeting up with you again, innit? Wait till I tell the missus. You want anything done, you call me. Anything.”
       “Thank you. Thank you very much. I’ll holler if I need anything. Oh, and Mr. . . . Billy, thank you for taking care of the sign.”
       Billy Beale blushed and nodded, covered his burnished hair with his cap, and left the office.
       Lucky, thought Maisie. Except for the war, I’ve had a lucky life so far. She sat down on the dubious oak chair, slipped off her shoes and rubbed at her feet. Feet that still felt the cold and wet and filth and blood of France. Feet that hadn’t felt warm in twelve years, since 1917.
       She remembered Simon, in another life, it seemed now, sitting under a tree on the South Downs in Sussex. They had been on leave at the same time, not a miracle of  course, but difficult to arrange, unless you had connections where connections counted. It was a warm day, but not one that took them entirely away from the fighting, for they could still hear the deep echo of battlefield cannonade from the other side of the English Channel, a menacing sound not diminished by the intervening expanse of land and sea. Maisie had complained then that the damp of France would never leave her, and Simon, smiling, had pulled off her walking shoes to rub warmth into her feet.
       “Goodness, woman, how can anyone be that cold and not be dead?”
       They both laughed, and then fell silent. Death, in such times, was not a laughing matter.

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"[A] deft debut novel... Romantic readers sensing a story-within-a-story won’t be disappointed. But first they must be prepared to be astonished at the sensitivity and wisdom with which Maisie resolves her first professional assignment." —The New York Times

"The reader familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency... might think of Maisie Dobbs as its British counterpart.... Winspear, who intends to write a series featuring Maisie Dobbs, has created a winning character about whom readers will want to read more." —The Associated Press

"[Maisie Dobbs] catches the sorrow of a lost generation in the character of one exceptional woman." —The Chicago Tribune

Reading Group Guide


At first glance, Maisie Dobbs's inaugural case as a private investigator looks dreadfully routine: Christopher Davenham, whose wife has been making unexplained weekday excursions from their London home, has employed Maisie to discover whether he is being betrayed. However, Maisie recalls the advice of her enigmatic mentor, Maurice Blanche, that "the extraordinary hides behind the camouflage of the ordinary." Events prove Maurice correct, as the trail of Davenham's wife leads Maisie to a mysterious, carefully guarded home for disabled World War I veterans—and toward a painful confrontation with her own haunting past. Set in England and France in the 1910s and 1920s, Maisie Dobbs steps beyond the conventional confines of a mystery novel by telling the story of a brave, brilliant young woman who rises from her working-class origins to study at Cambridge and earn a place as a respected detective. In addition, with astonishing subtlety and sympathy, the novel relives the heroic struggles and devastating losses of those who strove and suffered in the so-called War to End All Wars.

For her re-creation of England in the early decades of the last century, Jacqueline Winspear has drawn upon the experiences and stories of her own family. She has also surrounded her cool but compassionate heroine with a host of meticulously created supporting characters: Simon Lynch, the idealistic young doctor whose sense of humane duty draws him toward an unimaginable fate; Enid, a red-haired servant-girl whose fiery spirit and romantic dreams risk being crushed by class prejudice; Frankie Dobbs, who yearns for his daughter to rise and flourish but fears losing her to a social and intellectual world he cannot comprehend; and Maurice, who shapes Maisie's growing mind in his own image. Above all, however, Winspear recaptures the character of an age—a time when venerable social hierarchies began to totter, when the innocent optimism of youth gave way to the bitter truths of experience, and when shell-shocked veterans wandered the London streets at night, dimly searching for a repose that had been stolen from them forever.

Maisie lives on these pages not only as a detective, but as a subtle master of psychology whose every word and gesture seem calculated to lead to the revelation of truth. But Maisie herself has tried to bury a portion of her past. As the plot of Winspear's mystery unfolds, so, too, does Maisie's personal history, and we discover that the riddles of the visible world may be surpassed by the enigmas of the mind and of the memory.


Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in Kent, in the south of England. In 1990, after a career in publishing in London, she moved to California. Maisie Dobbs is her first novel, and the first in a series featuring the eponymous heroine.


You write in your novel's acknowledgments about sharing your home with Maisie Dobbs. Do you feel as if she has acquired a reality for you that goes beyond the printed page?

I'm not sure about a reality that goes beyond the printed page. However, in writing Maisie Dobbs I immersed myself in a research process that encompassed not only the Great War, but the late 1920s. When I wasn't writing, I was reading, watching documentaries, or wading through my notes. I wanted Maisie to be a woman of her time, to reflect a certain strength of spirit that was so present with women who had lived through the war, yet I also wanted her to have a uniqueness—in that respect, she took up a lot of space in our home. I think for a time I began every conversation with, "Maisie..."

The dedication of your novel gives a brief description of two of your grandparents, whose lives helped to inspire your story. Would you be interested in telling us anything more about them?

The interesting thing about many people of that Great War generation—especially those who were directly involved in the conflict—is how little they talked about it. People like my grandparents simply "got on with it" so to speak, and certainly it's that same strength of spirit that served the British so well in World War II. There are stories about my grandparents that I find fascinating, but the war stories in particular didn't reach me as oft-told tales, more as something spoken of with quiet gravity.

John "Jack" Winspear (my name is in honor of his nickname and my brother is also named John) was a costermonger by trade, a man who sold vegetables from a horse-drawn cart or "barrow." In fact, he was considered quite successful because he had several horses—many costermongers had hand-barrows for their rounds. He had talked about some of his wartime experiences to my father, but only when asked—and probably badgered, if truth be told. I know that at one point he was a stretcher-bearer, with the job of going out into no-man's land to retrieve the dead and dying. Two stories are particularly sad: On one occasion he came across the bodies of a British soldier and a German soldier—each had killed the other with a bayonet and their hands were still on their rifles, their eyes wide open looking at each other in death. The other story is his description of waiting for the sound of the whistle, the signal for the soldiers to go "over the top" and into a hell that they could only hear until the point of scrambling out of the trench, then screaming to keep themselves running. It was after such a battle, when only my grandfather and one other man in his company were left alive, that he was assigned to work as a stretcher-bearer before being sent to join another brigade. My grandfather died at the age of seventy-seven, and to the day he died he was still removing shrapnel from his legs, from wounds received in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. My maternal grandmother, Clara, worked at the Woolwich Arsenal in London and, apparently, was almost immediately ostracized by many of her neighbors. You see, women who worked in the factories earned good money for that time, and money meant freedom, a freedom of choice and action, which led to assumptions about a young woman's morals. The fact was that the women worked long, exhausting hours in dangerous conditions. Exposure to cordite and other chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives meant that the health of the liver was compromised. Many women suffered from jaundice—the munitions workers were known as "canaries" for the color of their skin—and the chemicals also caused the hair to have coppery streaks with a lot of static that sparked when you brushed your hair. The funny thing is that Ididn't actually know she was blind in one eye until a few years ago. I was talking to my mother about Clara—she died when I was eighteen—and had always assumed that she had the family "lazy eye" that myself and several of my cousins inherited from somewhere. Then my mother said, "Oh, no, she was half-blinded at the arsenal," and the story emerged about the explosion, how the girls working alongside her had been killed. That's what I mean about that generation never talking about themselves and their experiences. Part of my research was in having my mother talk to other family members (and Clara had ten children), to see what snippets of stories she had told, then piece them together to understand something of her experiences.

Maisie's first case takes her on an unexpectedly personal journey, and it seems that, for you, writing the book was also a voyage of self-discovery. Are there insights this experience has given you about your family history and about yourself that you would care to share with us?

Writing Maisie Dobbs came to be a personal quest in a way that I would never have imagined. I had written about one third or so of the book, squeezing my writing in between work commitments, etc., and then at one point put it aside as I was so busy. During the time of writing that first part of the story, I'd moved, got married, changed jobs—all big events in the space of a year! Then another life-changing moment occurred: I was out riding my horse and had a horrible accident. As I was flying through the air I immediately knew why it was happening, in the grand scheme of things—I had left my writing behind. I suffered a very badly broken arm and crushed shoulder, which required major surgery and the sort of internal hardware that would look at home in a carpenter's shop. Then came convalescence and a good six months of rehab—I was told that even after physical therapy I would be lucky to get 75 percent of the former use of my arm. A few weeks after surgery I was visiting my friend, Adair Lara, a San Francisco writer—I can still remember this so clearly—and she said, "Convalescence is the ideal time to finish your book!" I pointed to my right arm, which was in a sort of padded sling "structure," and said, "With this?" Adair's response was, "Well you've got a left arm haven't you?" So—to cut a long story short—over half of Maisie Dobbs was finished with just one hand on the keyboard, and I was so determined to get the other hand operational that I worked hard at rehab and within three months had the book finished and a good 85 percent of my arm back. The interesting thing is that immediately before my surgery, I was reading Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, and then afterwards read her personal story of overcoming chronic fatigue in order to write. I found that to be so very inspiring. My accident paled into insignificance against such a challenge, so I was determined not to let the accident stop me, and in effect used it to make the dream of writing a novel come true.

Mysteries as a genre offer a rich interaction between fragmentation and completeness; the detective is expected to extract consistency from the scattered clues of a piecemeal reality. Your book seems especially fascinated with fragments, whether they concern the shattered faces of the denizens of the Retreat, the disruption of England's social order, or Maisie's need to come to terms with her own broken past. As you were writing, what were you thinking about all these different kinds of fragments, and how did you see them in relation to one another?

Looking back, Maisie Dobbs came together like a mosaic, blending the stories and images as one would blend fragments of color and texture. I had the separate stories in my mind's eye: Maisie, her life and background; the effects of the Great War on one particular group of veterans; Maisie in 1929 and her quest to discover the truth about the Retreat, and also to establish her reputation now that she was no longer working with Maurice Blanche. Braiding the story with these strands was a very organic process for me.

A writer who tries to re-create a historical period faces some formidable challenges. What research or literary models enabled you to reconstruct the 'teens and 'twenties so convincingly?

In writing about that time between the start of the Great War and the years leading up to WWII, I was drawing upon the fruits of my own curiosity. In addition, I have been very fortunate in the people I've known and where I grew up. We lived in a small hamlet where, until I was about ten, my brother and I were the only children and my parents were among just a few younger couples. Everyone else was from that older generation of people who came of age in the Great War. It was therefore easy for me to capture the way people interacted, the language, the protocols of communication. I always joked that my early childhood had more in common with that of an Edwardian child than with, say, my cousins who lived in London—I think that has served me well with Maisie Dobbs. In addition, I've always loved that time between the wars. I am interested in the history of fashion of that time and used to haunt the Victoria and Albert Museum's costume collection in London. Also, years ago I used to help my friend on her stall in London's Portobello Road market. She dealt mainly in Art Deco jewelry and china, so I used to read a lot about the era—I wanted to sound as if I knew what I was talking about! During the time that I was writing Maisie Dobbs, I read only nonfiction in connection with the Great War, the events of the first thirty years of the century, etc. I made several visits to use the archives at London's Imperial War Museum and also walked every street that Maisie walks in London. So many people were helpful in responding to my requests for details, as can be seen in the acknowledgments. I can't say that I had any literary models in writing Maisie Dobbs, though.

During the flashback portion at the center of the novel, Maisie is often paired with other young women: Enid, Priscilla Evernden, Iris Rigson. However, in the 1929 segments, she has no female confidante near her own age. What do you think accounts for this difference?

Maisie's journey from a girl who has tragically lost her mother, to maid, to young woman with her own business, has given her an aura of "aloneness." Enid was her friend, but they were thrown together and in truth were a bit like chalk and cheese. Yet Maisie came to love Enid for her spirit and humor, and recognized that Priscilla also had similar qualities. Again, Maisie and Iris were friends of circumstance rather than choice, but their terrible experiences in France resulted in a different kind of bond. The fact that Maisie has no such friend in 1929 is partly to do with her position and partly due to her commitment to her work. Maisie's "aloneness" comes to a head in Birds of a Feather, the second Maisie Dobbs novel.

In her studies with Maurice Blanche, Maisie may have become familiar with the principle of quantum mechanics that holds that one cannot observe something without somehow changing it. She seems particularly aware of the fact that her investigations are bound to change the people involved, and she is admirably careful about wanting to change people only for the better. How were you able to create such a humanly sensitive private investigator?

Maisie's challenges—both in breaking through the "class ceiling" and as a nurse in France—have provided her with a unique perspective. Later, in her work as an investigator, her experiences have allowed greater insights into what it means to be human. In addition, her studies and curiosity have resulted in an innate understanding of how experience changes a person, that even good change can be challenging, and that her interactions with a person might change the outcome of events, or their thinking or attitude. She takes on this responsibility and, in a way, accompanies the person to a point in their personal journey where they are safe. She is not one to simply put the clues together, sort things out and move on. As far as what enabled me to create such a character, I think my own life experiences together with my training and work as a personal/life coach have helped. I have worked with many people who have made enormous leaps of faith to bring about change in their lives and have seen how such personal journeys can be challenging and, frankly, scary. So some of that has been brought into Maisie Dobbs.

Despite all the violence that lies beneath the surface of your story—a world war, a series of unexplained deaths, and so on—you tend to deal with the actual moments of violence with careful restraint. The death of one key character is reported in a telegram. Another chapter cuts away just before a horrible explosion. Is there an authorial philosophy behind this well-mannered delicacy?

I think it's a case of "less is more." While I certainly did not want to offer a clean and tidy image of a war that was filled with pain, terror, and bloodshed, I feel that a scene of violence can be just as effectively conveyed with less graphic images—and leave the imagination to do its work. Also, apart from the scene at the casualty clearing station, I was dealing very much with the aftermath of war, with words unspoken, with memories buried, and with scars so terrible one can but weep to think of the pain suffered. I didn't want to create graphic, violent scenes that overshadowed the whole book. For me the challenge was in conveying the lingering suffering of an individual and a country.

Maisie's mentor, Maurice Blanche, is a man of remarkably keen perceptions. Have you had a Maurice Blanche in your own life?

Maurice is really an amalgam of the teachers that have most impacted my life, whether in school or work. However, in his manner, Maurice reflects a teacher and friend who was most dear to me and to whom my second Maisie Dobbs novel is dedicated. Sadly, he died before Maisie Dobbs was published—and it had been my dream since childhood to present him with a copy of my first book.

For someone dedicated to tracing through the labyrinths and "mazes" of human psychology and behavior, "Maisie" is a beautifully chosen name. In addition, the initials "M. D." are delightfully apt for someone who approaches detective work as a means toward healing. Are we right in supposing that a lot of thought went into naming her?

Gosh, I hate to admit this, but the name "Maisie Dobbs" just came to me instantly along with the character. I had never written fiction before, yet had been badgered by one of my mentors to try fiction. I had no idea where to start—my other book-length manuscript was a memoir about my childhood—yet one day as I was stuck in traffic while driving to an appointment, Maisie Dobbs just came to me, just as she does in the first chapter. In my mind's eye I watched her walking through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station. I instantly knew her name and who she was. By the time I had driven another half mile, I knew her story. After work, I rushed home to write the first fifteen or so pages that became Chapter One. I have never wavered regarding her name and never doubted that the novel would bear her name. I am forever grateful that such an inspired moment gave me such a name, as it fits her perfectly.

Do you think the traits of a good private eye also make for a good writer?

I can only speak for myself here, but I do believe that being a good, detailed, and vigilant observer—of events, people, one's environment, sounds, colors, etc.—is the key to being a good writer. Curiosity is important for me, and asking questions. Like Maurice, I'm a great believer in questions. When I think of my favorite writers, their work reflects a quest, a journey of discovery to the heart of a matter—whether that journey takes the form of an essay, a poem, a short story, or a novel.

As you point out, many of the disabled soldiers at the Retreat develop a deep loyalty to Adam Jenkins because he provides "answers to unfathomable questions" and "leadership in their uncertainty." Do you feel that Jenkins's story is in some ways a parallel to the rise of Hitler?

I do believe that people such as Jenkins, Hitler—or any such leader—gain power amid fear and uncertainty. At the heart of every cult is a compelling personality, one who exudes a certain charisma. In Jenkins I wanted to explore the wounds that resulted in his terrible acts at the Retreat. The trouble is that such individuals come to power on a tide of support from people desperate for leadership—people who are suffering emotionally,economically—and then such leaders create a mood of fear to maintain control when the people begin to doubt. Thus the people—whether a group or a nation—are powerless. And that fear can be of the leader himself and the consequence of crossing him, or of an external threat to one's safety.

The almost blank period that you have intentionally left between 1917 and 1929 is deeply tantalizing. Do you plan to fill this gap in subsequent Maisie Dobbs novels and, if so, would you like to drop any hints at the moment?

Yes, that period is extremely tantalizing. There are a couple of possibilities: A case from her days with Maurice that is reopened; and a series of stories from the early days of Maisie's apprenticeship with Maurice.


  • How does Maisie's brief exchange with the newspaper vendor at the beginning of the novel (pp. 3-4) help to establish her character? Why is her combination of "bearing" and her "familiar way" of speaking such a surprise to Jack? How does this combination of qualities fit in with Maisie's desire for an office that is "something in the middle, something for everyone, something central, but then again not in the thick of things"?
  • Maisie initially has a hard time deciding what trade description to put on her nameplate (p. 5). At the end of the novel, she has firmly decided upon "M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator." In what other ways, during the course of the story, does Maisie arrive at a clearer idea of who she is?
  • Enid, Maisie's roommate at Lord Compton's mansion, is vividly contrasted with Maisie. What implicit comparisons are made between the two young women? Despite her lack of formal education, does Enid possess a kind of wisdom that Maisie is slower to acquire? Does Enid's juxtaposition with Maisie help us to understand Maisie better?
  • When he learns that his wife is still mourning the early death of a former love who was horribly wounded in World War I, Christopher Davenham responds, "[O]ne just has to get on with it. After all, you can't just give in, can you?" (p. 52). Similarly, Mrs. Crawford criticizes James for being different from other ex-soldiers who have "got on with it" (p. 207). You may have noticed that the phrase "Get on with it" becomes an important motif late in the novel (cf. pp. 283 and 292). If getting on with it is such sensible advice, why is it so hard to follow?
  • Throughout most of the novel, the facial disfigurement of the veterans who join the colony at the Retreat generates sympathy for them. However, at a climactic moment in the story, their wounds are used to make them appear monstrous and inhuman: "With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them, had never ended" (p. 262). In the story, and elsewhere, for that matter, can sympathy and repulsion exist comfortably side by side, or must one eventually triumph?
  • How does the young Maisie of the flashback chapters differ from the mature Maisie?
  • What obstacles does Maisie have to surmount, both personally and professionally, because she is a woman? How does her feminine identity influence her professional demeanor and investigative style? How do the obstacles of gender in the novel contrast with the obstacles of class?
  • Maisie finds herself situated between two powerful father figures: Frankie, her natural father; and Maurice, her intellectual "father." Both of these men represent different parts of Maisie's life and character though they have very little in common. How successful is Maisie in balancing their influences?
  • Despite the sinister nature of the Retreat, Billy Beale initially finds the compound somewhat attractive and feels respect for Adam Jenkins. Why?
  • Is Maisie as skilled at resolving her own inner conflicts as she is at dealing with those of others? Are there any relationships in particular that you think she mismanages? Why?
  • Imagine Maisie Dobbs as the basis for a screenplay. Choose a scene and discuss how you, as the director, would want to film it.
  • What is your response to the ending of the novel, particularly the last meeting between Simon and Maisie? Is Maisie more focused on her suffering or Simon's? Is her focus where it ought to be? Does the scene resolve the tensions of the story or heighten them?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Series #1) 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 246 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I recommend this book to everyone. Classified as a mystery, it transends any one genre with its psychological and spiritual overtones, class struggle, and battlefield scenes woven nicely into the dire circumstances of WWI Europe. And, oh yes, there is a mystery to be solved. Jackie Winspear has created a believable,admirable character in Maisie Dobbs. The reader pulls for her while racing through the well-crafted story. Maisie Dobbs should move right to the bestseller list along with The Secret Life of Bees and The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Winspear was nominated for an Edgar, and won an Agatha for Maisie Dobbs. I'm looking forward to her next book, Birds of A Feather.
    genej101 More than 1 year ago
    I first noticed Ms. Winspear when the last book in this series, so far, was atop the best sellers list. I bought the first in the series, read it, loved it and immediately purchased the entire remaining set. I couldn't recommend it more highly. I knew a lot about the conditions in Germany between the World Wars but very little, as it turns out, about the conditions in England. Ms. Winspear's meticulous research and historically accurate depiction of life in England during that period makes the books worth reading for that reason alone. That they are also outstanding mysteries with that compelling can't-put-down quality is an amazing bonus. There are few authors who I buy in hardcover, preferring to wait for the paperback but Ms. Winspear is now among that elite list for me, when she publishes, I want the book NOW. The vernacular takes some getting used to but it in no way detracts from the story or the history. Wonderful reading.
    pjpick More than 1 year ago
    I'm not one for mysteries and not one for serials. I purchased this one to send to my mom, but as I was looking for an easy read and this one was in reach I cracked it open to take a gander. Well, it was a pleasant surprise! It didn't take long before I found myself engrossed in the life of Maisie Dobbs. As this is the first in the Maisie Dobbs series, it was light on the mystery and heavy on the "set up" and history for the series (which could be why I liked it so much). It also felt like I was reading an episode of Masterpiece Theatre--which I absolutely love. Maisie seems like somone I would have as a friend and Winspear's writing gave me strong images of WWI post-WWI England. Finally, the last two pages had me sobbing like a baby. Kudos Winspear for such a lovely story! I look forward to book #2.
    zarea More than 1 year ago
    Being the first it was loaded with back ground info on the characters. I would highly recommended starting with this book. That said World War 1 is such a large part of this book and for me the best part of the book. I wonder if the author has made her Psychologist and Investigator business interesting enough for Maisie books to keep me buying. She is the perfect daughter, friend and associate that you just go ho-hum she's visiting again. I recommended it for a book club because there is so much to talk about and it would be one of those book you like or don't like. Makes for a lively discussion but Maisie herself does not interest me enough to read another.
    TeechTX More than 1 year ago
    Once you meet Maisie, you won't be happy until you've read as much of her story as has yet been told. This first entry in Winspear's series (now up to #8, with #9 in the wings) is an excellent beginning to a totally delightful series. We meet Maisie as an early teenager who enters domestic service when her family falls on hard times just before the outbreak of WWI. By dent of her own hard work and some extraordinary good luck, she manages to achieve an education and resulting independence, while solving mysteries along the way. The series is filled with intresting, well-developed characters and a good backdrop of England between the World Wars. Maisie's approach to solving cases reflects the growing interest in "alienists" (pyschologists) and foreshadows today's use of behaviorial analysis in crime solving. Her detection is thoughtful in every sense of the word, and it is spiced up with some wonderful moments of droll humor.
    dr_cac More than 1 year ago
    Excellent! This is a book I would re-read and that doesn't occur often. The writing reminds me of Anne Perry, in her WW1 novels, and yet Winspear has a distinctive style all her own. Winspear has done a beautiful job of giving her characters breadth and depth, then again, I do think the Brits do a much better job of this as they take the time to introduce us to the charcter and allow us to discover the multi-dimensional personalites. The plot is also multi-dimensional which gives further reason for why the characters are present. I did enjoy the handling of the time periods. As I have already ordered the next couple of books in this series I obviously recommend it. If the next books are as captivating as this first one then I will be delighted.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Winspear has succeeded in making something new out of the mystery novel... the mystery behind the plot draws you in and keeps you turning the pages but this book also has soul. This originality comes through in its exploration of the ethics, almost the spirituality, that underlie the profession of private investigator. In a highly original combination, Winspear works Buddhism, philosophy, feminism, the history of WWI, and an ideal of personal growth into an enjoyable mystery story that not only drew me in but inspired me. Maisie Dobbs is written with a lot of heart. I'm looking forward to hearing more of her story.
    cherryred More than 1 year ago
    I repurchased this book because it is the first in the series. I had lent this book to a co-worker and never got it back. I really enjoy this series and I wanted a complete set. I plan on re-reading the series from beginning book to end in about 10 years. The book "Maisie Dobbs" was a find in a tiny little book store. Who knew I would be "hooked!" I am so glad I was able to buy this one again to add to my set!!!! She is a great character. The book has mystery, compassion and the hardships of war, that any of us can experience. I think if you start with the first one you will get hooked just as I did!!!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Maisie Dobbs is an interesting, well-researched story of WWI and the aftermath. I found it very enjoyable, and hope that the author does continue with the series. Maisie is complicated and empathetic -- an unusual, likeable heroine.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I recently read this book and enjoyed it very much. According to the book jacket, it is intended to be the first in a series. If so, I look forward to reading the next 'Maisie Dobbs.' The basic plot (serving girl gets educated by broad minded employer) may be a bit cliched, but given the time period and what happened to the social classes at that time, it comes off as believable. Part of what made this book interesting was the way Maisie's psychological situation was revealed to the reader.
    bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
    Maisie Dobbs takes place following World War I in London. It's an era that I didn't know much about, and so soaking in all of the atmosphere that Winspear so painstakingly researched was a revelation. Although I'm not much of a clotheshorse, I really enjoyed how the author described Maisie's clothes. My mother-in-law designs and makes antique clothes, and as I read this book, I thought of how much she would love this. I like how Maisie is so intelligent, yet she doesn't have all the answers. The way she mimics the posture of the person with whom she is talking to make them more comfortable with her fascinated me. Her mentor Dr. Maurice Blanche's psychological insights to Maisie, such as "Never follow a story with a question, Maisie, not immediately. And remember to acknowledge the storyteller, for in some way even the messenger is affected by the story he brings," are illuminating, and useful to the reader. Maisie's straddling of two different classes of society- her father's working class and her benefactor's aristocratic one- makes for interesting conflict for her. Her father, a groom on the estate where Maisie is a maid, wants a better life for Maisie, yet fears losing her completely to her new life. Lady Rowan, her employer and benefactor, is an interesting character and I hope we get to see more of her in future books. And in the end, it was Enid, Maisie's fellow maid, who was the greatest influence on Maisie. Her words to Maisie about her duty to help the boys in the war effort may have had the deepest effect on Maisie's life. Maisie Dobbs starts in 1930, after Maisie has become a private investigator, and establishes the adult Maisie before taking us back to her childhood and the story of how Maisie got to where she is. It is a good technique because we are so invested in Maisie's adult life before we see how she got there. I felt that the author's take on the horrors of war resonated deeply. So much of what happened to the men and women who fought in war is universal and timeless. While techniques of war have changed greatly since World War I, the awful effects of it have not. I liked seeing war from a female point of view. But my favorite quote from the book has to do with reading, of course. "The feeling inside that she experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew she needed this sustenance as surely as her body needed fuel." That just might be my new Facebook quote. Since Maisie is a private investigator, there is a mystery to be solved, and mystery fans will be satisfied with this part of the story. But for me, the story of Maisie's life is what I felt most deeply about and I look forward to finding out more about her in the books to come.
    KrisPA More than 1 year ago
    I'd heard much about Maisie Dobbs so I decided to buy the first book in the series. Ick. Perhaps the subsequent novels in this series are more interesting because this book is lacking in plot, character, and dialogue. I can't find anything to hold my interest. Maisie, while having many superior qualities, is so boring and humor-free that she never comes alive to me as a person. She is just words on a page. None of the characters are interesting and I am sick of the oft-quoted advice of Maisie's detective tutor, Marice. His homilies and quips are annoying. The plot is lacking too. I have no interest in why the dead soldier is buried with just his first name on a tomb. That's not a very compelling plot. I have given up on the book because it's just so mind-numbingly boring. Life is too short to read bad books.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear is a heart-wrenching mystery and novel written to take place during the early 1900s. I would recommend this book to some people, but if you need to keep track of things in succession, I would skip the book. It jumps around a little bit and the beginning was a slow one for me. I believe the author was trying to get across how deeply some of the soldiers were affected when the war was over. Friends and family abandoned some soldiers when they finally came home. Some soldiers were mentally traumatized whereas others had minor physical impairments, such as limps, all the way to being horribly disfigured and not recognizable by loved ones. A big part of the story is the mystery and astonishing uncovering of a veteran retreat. During that unveiling, it seemed that those men had never left the war in the first place. The book emphasizes the postponement of marriage during this time because many men, who were sent overseas, never came home alive. As time passes, it¿s easier for wounds to heal and to ignore past feelings and this story points it out, in a big way! Jacqueline was successful in presenting the hardships of broken relationships after wartime. It was mentioned more than once that family just ¿stopped visiting¿ and friends never bothered to get in touch and claimed, they too, were just so shocked and were not ready to meet up.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Excited to read more.
    kiorabree More than 1 year ago
    Find this portion of history fascinating. I found very little mystery with this book though. However, good characters are more intriguing to me than a curious mystery so no big loss for me.
    Irish_Roever More than 1 year ago
    Well done...excellent story
    bookreaderNM More than 1 year ago
    I have read this book in the past as a library book. This time I read it as our book group's choice for this month. It is a quick read but has a lot of information about World War I and the terrible loss of soldiers.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Wonderfully written WWI period story.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is a book club read since it was recommended by public radio. I loved the character of Maisie Dobbs. The book blends psychological concepts, mindfulness, WWI history, turn of the century England, and relationships into the mystery. Her writing style is clear, well edited. The story line logical, enough extras to add flavor, but not too much to distract from the point of the story.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I picked up this book on the recommendation of a friend, and I'm glad I did! It was very informative and interesting. I couldn't put it down, and as soon as I finished it, I started the second book in the series.
    cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
    Maisie Dobbs is the first book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. The story starts in 1929, when thirty-two-year-old Maisie is setting up her own private investigation business. She has taken over the business of her mentor, Maurice Blanche, and is supported by her patron, Lady Rowan Compton and the very capable office caretaker, Billy Beale. Her first client is convinced his wife is being unfaithful: an easy case to solve, but it leads Maisie into a very different investigation, partly out of curiosity, and partly on behalf of Lady Compton. The novel is divided into three parts, with the middle section describing Maisie’s life from her early teens through her involvement in the Great War, a history that proves very relevant to her investigation. Winspear has created a fascinating heroine: clever, wise, considerate, philosophical, with a good knowledge of psychology and a strong intuitive endowment. Alexander McCall Smith describes Maisie Dobbs as “a real gift”. In this novel, Winspear touches on desertion, “shell shock” (perhaps better known these days as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), cowardice, disfiguring injuries and adjusting to post-war life. Maisie Dobbs was a nominee for Best Novel in the Edgar Award 2004. This historical mystery is a moving and thought-provoking read.
    kyohin More than 1 year ago
    I always enjoy books featuring women who are portrayed as intelligent and logical and resourceful and . . . well, you get the idea.
    3cherry More than 1 year ago
    Great mystery, greater heroine, the greatest supporting caricters, I always know who did it half way through, But not with Maisie!! PAGE TURNER!! YOU'LL LOVE IT. Have allready read book 2!! Need I say moore!!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    It is unique in that it is so different than most of the books I've been reading. It is not another present day bounty hunter or the typical lady private investigator. The time period is interesting between WWI and WWII. It gives a different perspective of life during that time period. And it is so well written. Enjoy!
    senior-lady More than 1 year ago
    Enjoyed this 1st in the series book. It is well written and just plain feels good to read. I now have some new character friends. Not boring, but relaxing to read.