Among the mystery series recommended to me a few months back when I was writing about my interest in Between the Wars fiction was Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books. Kindle recently had Elegy for Eddie at a reduced price, and investigations suggested that new readers could easily pick up with this book and not feel lost—which turned out to be true, incidentally.
I want to thank those of you who recommended these books—I really liked Maisie and her various cohorts, so much so that I suspect I’ll be going back and reading the entire series.
So Elegy for Eddie involves Maisie looking into the death of Eddie, an autistic horse whisperer she’s known since childhood. Eddie’s death at a local paper factory seems to be an accident, but the costermongers who knew him insist that there’s something fishy about it and ask Maisie to investigate. She soon finds that Eddie was doing more than running errands and was inadvertently tangled up in a plot involving a number of powerful men. Meanwhile, she’s also finding her relationship with James to be suffocating and shifting so quickly that it’s hard to find her balance in it.
I’m going to raise a few eyebrows here and invoke a sacred name (at least to me): Dorothy L. Sayers. The further I read into this book, the more the comparison came to my mind. The time frame is nearly identical, and while Winspear is not the stylist Sayers was, she’s also not writing in the time period as Sayers was. People often talk about how authentic Sayers books feel—well, they were authentic because they were written in the moment, and there’s something about a genuine 20’s and 30’s British voice that is pretty difficult for a contemporary writer to emulate. For me, finding a writer who is able to somehow capture that element to a point where it’s hard to tell that the book isn’t period is nigh on impossible. Winspear comes pretty darned close, though. And Maisie reminds me very much of Harriet Vane in several ways: her logical approach to her work, her need to keep herself intact in her relationship with James and the struggle to find a way to balance all of that, and her adjustment to living in a completely different class than she was born into are all problems Harriet faces, as did any woman who chose to strike out independently in a time when that was still more a novelty than it should have been.
As a mystery novel, this has plenty to cheer about too—it not only reads like an authentic period piece, it’s written and structured much like a mid-thirties Golden Age detective novel—whiffs of political intrigue, suspects across a variety of social classes, clues hidden not just by verbal sleight of hand, but also in character attitudes, and in the end, a good chunk of moral ambiguity for Maisie. These were complex times for people, and Winspear captures that complexity through the various characters and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not perfectly done–sometimes it feels a little forced, like she’s trying too hard to get it just right. But I found those moments few and far between and easily overlooked.
If you’re a fan of Sayers, you should check out Maisie Dobbs, but I will offer a caveat: no one can duplicate Sayers’ brilliance, so don’t expect that. But this is the same type of mystery, one that not only offers an intriguing puzzle, but also looks at the political and social changes that were rapidly advancing at the time. In other words, there’s some meat on the bones—and plenty to chew on.