I met Maisie Dobbs in the stacks at Spartanburg County Public Library in 2003, and she’s been a treasured friend ever since. Or at least, I’d like to think she’d be a friend if she were a real person and not the protagonist of one of my favorite series of mystery novels. I just finished Journey to Munich, the twelfth installment, and I love how Maisie’s character has grown and developed over the course of the series. She and author Jacqueline Winspear have taught me a lot about Great Britain during World War and in the two decades after.
The series open in London in the years before World War I. Maisie, age 13, has just lost her mother, and financial circumstances have led her working class father to find Maisie a job in household service. (Think Daisy on Downton Abbey.) Maisie joins the Belgravia household of Lady Rowan Compton.
Maisie had been a serious student before her mother’s death, and she has an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a thirst she slakes by sneaking into the Compton library and reading until the wee hours of the morning. Eventually the family discovers her secret.Impressed by Maisie’s intelligence and her ambition, the progressive Lady Rowan arranges for the girl to receive private tutoring from a family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche. Ultimately Maisie enrolls in Girton College, the women’s college at Oxford.
Then the Great War intervenes. Like many women in England, she leaves the university to do her bit for the country in the face of the national emergency. She becomes a nurse behind the front lines in France, treating men wounded in the trenches. Maisie witnesses all the horrors of the fighting, her first love is killed, and she is wounded.
Upon returning from France, Maisie apprentices with Dr. Blanche, a man best described as a forensic psychologist who works for both Scotland Yard and British intelligence. Dr. Blanches teaches Maisie the finer points of investigation, and she subsequently hangs out her own shingle as a “private inquiry agent.”
The rest of the series explores Maisie’s investigative adventures. We follow her through years of cases, many of which require unearthing secrets buried during the Great War. We see the toll that the war has taken on ordinary English people. We watch Maisie and her family and friends struggle to cope with the Great Depression, and we observe the rising tensions among European nations as Hitler comes to power in the 1930s. The novels touch on all kinds of historical issues from women’s suffrage to labor strife, from eugenics and the treatment of mental illness to business ethics and class struggle.
Eventually Maisie marries Lady Rowan’s son James, and the two are blissfully happy until James is killed test piloting an experimental fighter plane. In her grief, Maisie makes her way to Spain where she gets caught up in the Spanish Civil War. She comes full circle, nursing Spanish fighters.
In the latest installment, Journey to Munich, Maisie is back in England and beginning to find her footing when she is recruited by British intelligence officers for a dangerous undercover mission. Maisie poses as the daughter of a British businessman who was arrested in Germany on charges of publishing anti-Nazi literature. He has been held in Dachau for more than two years, and after extensive negotiations (not to mention a little financial incentive) with British diplomats, the Germans have finally agreed to release him, but only to a family member. Maisie is recruited to collect him in Munich.
She is immediately plunged into a world of intrigue where even the spies are spying on each other. (She even has a brief encounter with Hitler himself.) Maisie witness firsthand the terrifying and growing power of the totalitarian Nazi regime. While in Munich, Maisie also tries to convince Elaine Otterburn, the woman she blames for her husband’s death, to return home to England.This effort leads to some unexpected complications.
Along the way, the act of living in disguise forces Maisie to question who she has become in the wake of her husband’s death. With her life on the line, she realizes that she wants to live, something she had doubted in the first months of widowhood. And she must decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Journey to Munich is a gripping, well-crafted tale with deftly drawn characters. I could barely put the book down until I reached the last page.
For additional reading, you may want to check out these titles from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore. Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.
For more on Britain between the wars, see two books by Richard Overy: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars and The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars.
To learn about the experiences of a real-life Maisie Dobbs, check out Vera Brittain’s Testment of Youth. Like Maisie, Brittain left the university to become a battlefield nurse. (Now also a major motion picture.) My colleague uses this book in his history courses, and students find it gripping.
To learn more about the lives of ordinary people in Nazi Germany, see Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband, What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany.
And to learn more about British intelligence gathering efforts during the 1930s, see Kevin Quinlan, The Secret War Between the Wars: Mi5 and MI6 in the 1920s and 1930s.