Birds of a Feather, Jacqueline Winspear, Penguin, $14.00.
One of the most interesting and enjoyable debuts of last year was Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs. I'm not alone in my opinion - her book was nominated for the Edgar, the Agatha and the Dilys awards, winning the Agatha for Best First Novel. Her follow up is thus much anticipated, and she's apparently listened to some of the criticism leveled at her first book - i.e., great character, so-so mystery. This book has a terrific mystery that's character based and makes sense but is still mysterious and offers at least one alternative suspect to the actual killer. Maisie is still Maisie, and I wouldn't start with this book, I'd start with the first, because it really establishes Maisie's character and makes the second book more enjoyable. By the time you open the pages of the second book, you're rooting for Maisie, and hoping for her life to go well.
Maisie is a "psychological" private detective - that is, she uses all her senses, including body language and intuition, to tell her where her cases are taking her. The influences and whys of how she does this are fully explained in the first book, and it's what makes her so unique. She's a woman living just after World War I in London, and like many women of that period, she lost her sweetheart in the war. Also like many women of the period, she served in France as a nurse, and so has seen many of the horrors that the men encountered during the war, including the ones seen and suffered by her trusted assistant, Billy Beale. It makes her more empathic and more respected in many of the situations she finds herself in, and the war hangs like a dark cloud over both novels. In this novel she's investigating the disappearance of a grocery store heiress. The heiress' father, a domineering and self made man, wants his daughter under his roof even though she's over 30. Finding Charlotte isn't a big problem for Maisie, but when Maisie begins to discover that many of Charlotte's pre-war girlfriends have all been brutally murdered, Maisie begins to unravel a much larger story - a story which finds Charlotte in the center.
At the same time, Maisie is worried about her assistant, Billy. His war sustained leg injury is bothering him more than usual and his moods seem inconsistent at times. She's also dealing with her relationship with her father. The richness and depth of Winspear's characterizations take these books a very long way, and I think if she can combine the amazing character study of the first novel with the sharper mystery of her second novel, she'll have an unbeatable combination. As it is, these are very enjoyable novels, well on a par with Victoria Thompson's and Rhys Bowen's enjoyable historical detectives. Maisie Dobbs is someone whose acquaintance you need to make.
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