I know I’m reading these Maisie Dobbs books all out of order, but I’m just reading them as I come across them with the knowledge that I’m enjoying them so much that I’ll likely sit back down and reread all of them in order once I’ve gotten through them all.
So The Mapping of Love and Death is the 7th installment in the series, and it would appear, based on my limited evidence, to be a pivotal installment in terms of Maisie’s personal life and growth as a character. The plot itself is engrossing—I really like a mystery where the investigator has to go back into the past in order to solve a case, and I especially like them when the mystery itself is only unearthed some years after the crime. In this case, Maisie is contacted by The Cliftons, an American couple whose son Michael was killed during WWI. His body has recently been discovered, along with some papers, a journal, and his equipment, and he appears to have had a liaison with an English nurse during the war. It is this woman the Cliftons are hoping Maisie will be able to trace. But Mr. Clifton, who is British by birth, has also seen the post mortem report and knows that Michael was not killed in action, but murdered.
This is a difficult investigation for Maisie, who needs to try and trace not only the unnamed English nurse, but also a murderer. Probing memories in people who might not want to remember is challenging, not only for Maisie the investigator but for Maisie the former nurse. Michael was a cartographer during the war, and as Maisie weaves her way through various witnesses who had some knowledge of the cartography units, well. The reader gets an idea of just how difficult the task is: there is every chance that someone who might have been able to help her is dead, there are private nursing units as well as those sanctioned by the military, and since the men in Michael’s unit were all killed, the men who knew him best under those particular circumstances are unable to speak. And when the Cliftons are attacked in their hotel room soon after meeting with Maisie, and when Maisie is later robbed of her document case, things become even less clear: is this a family matter or a war matter?
As a mystery, this is a solid enough effort—all of the major players are identified fairly early on, and it’s really more a matter of why Clifton was murdered than who murdered him; I had no issue figuring it out fairly early. But the story is none the less compelling for that, and I was quickly caught up in his wartime romance, which parallels a new one for Maisie that readers still catching up with this series may be surprised by. Then there are the changes in Maisie’s personal life as well—her mentor, Maurice, is ill, and her contact at Scotland Yard has been replaced by a less cooperative man.
I find the period details in these books to be spot on, and Winspear is great at capturing the atmosphere of London between the wars. There is a major factual error right at the very beginning of the story that I’m not sure most people would catch, and as it has absolutely no bearing on the case, it wasn’t enough to actually put me off. And I really enjoyed learning more about cartography and the importance of cartographers during the war–Winspear keeps the technical details light, but she offers just enough information to make me want to learn more about their roles in WWI.
What I think Winspear does really well in these books, though, is the characters. Maisie is both realistic and continually evolving, and she’s an interesting character for the time period she exists in—a woman in what was typically a man’s profession then. She’s not an amateur sleuth, but a professional inquiry agent, and one who runs her own business to boot. For her time period, she’s very cutting edge, and it’s interesting to watch her make her way through the various barriers that existed to women back then, especially women who are not wealthy—comparing her to Lady Ella, who used her husband’s wealth to start a private nursing unit during the war, makes you realize just how difficult her path has been. I think a lot of writers might have been tempted to overplay this part, too, because Maisie isn’t just a woman earning her way in a man’s world, but a woman who’s pulling herself upward both financially and socially. Winspear keeps her firmly balanced, though, and avoids letting things get either twee or unrealistic. Instead, Maisie becomes a symbol of a time period of rapid social changes, but in a quiet, workmanlike way. Maisie is never hysterical. I like that in a character.
The only real issue I had with this book was that the end was tied up a little too neatly—in a case with roots firmly entrenched so far in the past, it seems a little much that Maisie would be able to get all of her questions satisfactorily answered, and there is also a final event that has no connection to the actual case at hand that she feels compelled to push for an answer to, even though it’s not only nosey of her but overbearing. It felt like Winspear had gone perhaps one step too far in neatening everything up, and it wasn’t necessary. It bugged me enough that I feel I have to mention it, although it happens so late in the book that I can’t mention what it is without completely spoiling the ending.
Maisie receives some life-altering news at the end as well that should allow the author to take her in even more interesting directions as she continues to explore her character. I need to go back and read the earlier books in the series first, but I’m looking forward to spending time not only in Maisie’s past, but with her future as well.
On a more personal note: given the incident in Boston yesterday, I nearly pulled this post out of respect for the situation. And then I remembered that mystery novels provide us with a reminder that good and justice always triumph. And in this case, the wheels of justice ground slowly, but in the end, justice won. It’s an idea worth keeping in mind as we make our way through the upcoming days and weeks. –donna