Book 8 of 2019: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

In 1929 London, Private Investigator Maisie Dobbs unearths a series of suspicious deaths connected to a home for disfigured veterans. Using her knowledge of psychology and quiet determination, Maisie must unravel the mystery and finally leave her own trauma from The Great War behind.

Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing and complex read that will stick with me for a long time. Anyone with even a passing interest in World War One will find Winspear’s descriptions of the scars it created fascinating. Maisie herself is a well-rounded and intriguing protagonist. Her journey from a junior maid to university student to a battlefield nurse could be a novel in its own right, but Winspear manages to 126 pages, somehow without feeling rushed. Maisie is brave, intelligent, and resourceful but still very much a woman of her time. Her goal isn’t to break through the boundaries set for her sex and class. She only wants to help people.

As a historical novel, Maisie Dobbs is nearly flawless. I found the mystery element slightly disappointing. Soldiers dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving everything to the leader of their cloistered retreat, and buried under only their first names could have been milked for incredible suspense. That line was dropped in the middle of the book in favor of describing Maisie’s past and wartime love affair for over a third of the book. The skillful prose and complex characters make the interruption forgivable, but they would have been better showcased in their own novel or paced intermittently between the 1929 storyline. Thoughtful historical fiction is lovely, but I picked the book up for a murder mystery.

Winspear has penned an impressive fifteen novels of Maisie Dobbs adventures. I can easily see myself picking one up when I am in a less bloodthirsty, and more historical, mood.

Book 6 of 2019: An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver

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I am continuing my crime fiction spree with An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver. Amateur sleuth Amory Ames and her formerly philandering husband, Milo, are called to investigate a series of threatening letters sent to Flora Bell, a rising theatrical star and mistress of their married friend, Gerald Holloway. When Flora is killed on opening night, everyone in the cast is a suspect. Amory must find the real killer to save the Holloways’ marriage.

An Act of Villainy is the fifth book in the Amory Ames series. I have read none of them. I followed the plot without any problem. Weaver is skilled at establishing background without being bogged down. We know that Amory and Milo had difficult times in their marriage but have since rekindled their affections, through solving murders. We don’t need to know anything else to enjoy this engaging mystery.

Weaver’s greatest strength is her character work.  She manages to elicit sympathy for a betrayed wife, her cheating husband, and his mistress all at the same time. The stereotypical villains have soft emotions, beloved families, and sordid pasts. Amory is an intelligent detective with lots of empathy and little patience for patriarchy. She inserts herself into a murder investigation, in 1933, with little to no pushback through sheer quiet determination. She doesn’t sneak through alleys or infiltrate criminal organizations. She sits down and drinks tea. Somehow this solves murders.

Unfortunately, this particular murder left a bad taste in my mouth. The mystery is technically serviceable, though the culprit felt shoehorned in. Like Amory, I suspected nearly everyone else before the actual killer, because there was no stated evidence against them until the last few chapters. There was no smoking gun, merely a collection of details glazed over as description. Of course, we learn about dozens of suspicious deaths surrounding the murderer, after they confess. Amory solves the case thanks to an offhand remark from her mother, rather than actual detective work. The solution was a surprise, not because of its originality, but because there were more likely options.

The rest of the story was good enough to overshadow the lackluster solution. For me, the actual crime is the least important element of detective fiction. I want to follow the clues and solve the case, yes, but most importantly I want to care about the characters involved. I care about Amory Ames, so I’m looking forward to reading her other adventures.

Book 5 of 2019: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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As the first lady private detective in Botswana, Precious Ramotswe solves problems in her clients’ lives, exposing con men, tracking missing husbands and independent daughters, and battling the powerful to rescue the innocent.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was just as engaging the second time around. Mma Ramotswe is practical, independent, and hilarious. Botswana is portrayed as a modern country, avoiding the poverty fetishism that so often appears in books about Africa. You can tell that McCall Smith, a former professor at The University of Botswana, truly loves the country.

My one complaint is with the narrative arc. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency wants to be both a novel and short story collection at the same time. Some of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, while others must be read together. Chapter 12 is a two-page description of Mma Ramotswe’s house. It’s charming and gives the reader a better understanding of the character, but it’s not a story by itself.

Still, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is an engaging read. The mysteries are uncomplicated but not obvious. There are no grizzly murders, criminal geniuses, or convoluted ciphers. Mma Ramotswe helps ordinary people with everyday problems until she discovers the case of a young boy abducted by a witch doctor. Even then, she approaches it with the ultimate pragmatism, lamenting only the superstition that would drive her countrymen to commit such crimes.

Alexander Mcall Smith is a talented and prolific author. I look forward to continuing the series.