Sunday, August 27, 2006

Messenger of Truth

Messenger of Truth
A Maisie Dobbs Novel
By Jacqueline Winspear

I jumped at the chance to review this book because I love historical fiction and because I haven’t reviewed any mysteries even though I've been reading a lot more of them since I started BookCrossing.

Psychologist and private investigator Maisie Dobbs is a strong, independent women living in London during the interwar years. After splitting with her mentor Maurice Blanche, Maisie sets up her own practice using her intuitive skills to help her clients and concluding her cases only "when those affected by [her] work are at peace with the outcome" (287). . .

In December 1930, artist Nicholas Bassington-Hope falls to his death from scaffolding as he prepares an installation of his most significant exhibition. Scotland Yard investigators rules the death an accident, but his sister Georgina has lingering doubts. With no evidence, no motive, and no potential suspects, the police are growing tired of her and are more than happy when Georgina announces her intention of enlisting the help of private investigator Maisie Dobbs.

Remembered as "an interpreter of both the human and natural landscape" (303), Nick Bassington-Hope was an artist on the rise who did not shy away from anything in his work. In order to find out who would want to silence the "messenger of truth" and why, Maisie must immerse herself in the world of art and those who can afford to collect it.

Maisie Dobbs is a wonderfully full-bodied character. Her backstory includes the loss of the love of her life as well as time working "in service" (periodspeak for being a servant in a wealthy household) and as an army nurse during World War I. I was so taken when I read this quote from Alexander McCall Smith (featured on the back of the book’s dust jacket) that I can’t help but include it here: "In Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear has given us a real gift. Maisie Dobbs has not been created—she has been discovered. Such people are always there among us, waiting for somebody like Ms. Winspear to come along and reveal them. And what a revelation it is!"

Although the book is a mystery novel, Messenger of Truth is less a page-turning whodunit than a well-crafted period piece that happens to be a mystery, something that I find immensely appealing. Throughout the book, Winspear displays her knowledge of the historical backdrop and social milieu of the interwar years. A perfect example is when Winspear writes of how important owning her own home is to Maisie: "Indeed, the number of young women whose chance at marriage ended with the war—almost two million according to the census in 1921—meant that the adverse attitude toward women and the ownership of property had been suspended, just a little, and just for a while" (48). Additionally, a subplot featuring Maisie's assistant Billy Beale takes the story out of the environs of the well-to-do and into the less prosperous areas of London where tragedy strikes every day.

Messenger of Truth is Winspear's fourth Maisie Dobbs book—following Maisie Dobbs (2003), Birds of a Feather (2004), and Pardonable Lies (2005)—but, not having read any of the previous books, I can assure readers that it does stand alone. Of course that doesn't mean that I'm not going to put all of the earlier books on my wishlist ;)

I'll end my comments with a passage that caught my attention while reading:
When [Maisie] was young, when the urge to learn gnawed at her as if it were the hunger that followed a fast, there was a game that Maurice, her teacher and mentor, had introduced to their lessons [...] He would hand her a novel, always a novel, with the instruction to read a sentence or a paragraph at random, and to see what might lie therein for her to consider. "The words and thoughts of characters borne of the author’s imagination can speak to us, Maisie. Now, come on, just open a book and place your finger on the page. Let's see what you’ve drawn." Sometimes she found nothing much at all, sometimes dialogue of note. Then, once in a while, a short passage chosen moved her in such a way that the words would remain with her for days. (52-53)
So relevant to my own life and my own reading. . .

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