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Mind over Murder Monday

What I've Finished Reading

Maisie Dobbs is an interesting book. Maisie's client's allegedly unfaithful wife turns out to be going to the graveyard to put flowers on the grave of her childhood sweetheart, rather than meeting a living person. The dead man, Maisie learns, was severely disfigured in the war and later killed himself at a home for disfigured soldiers . . .or did he?

[Maisie Dobbs plot discussion and minor spoilers]
The middle half of this book (about 130 pages of a total 300) is a flashback, following Maisie's childhood and adolescence - she acquires a wealthy patron after her mother dies, thanks to the intervention of Maurice Blanche, investigative psychologist and all-round saint, and works as a housemaid while being trained in Infinitely Extrapolatable Philosophy, like the Abbe Faria. Then she goes to France as a nurse and has a love affair with one of the doomed youth. A sad ending is implied, but we're kept in suspense about the exact nature of the sadness till the end of the book. Then it's back to the present, where something ominous is happening at the home for disfigured soldiers.

Maisie Dobbs is a good example of the core problem of detective fiction, How Is This Horrible Thing Supposed to be Fun? The solution here isn't to emphasize the puzzle; there's not much of that kind of detection. Maisie's method is to look sympathetic and wait for different witnesses to spill their guts, or failing that, to send a devoted friend to infiltrate the Old Soldier's Home and force a Dramatic Reveal.

Instead, the entertainment/serious business balance is maintained by. . . just not being terribly convincing, mostly. It hits a lot of familiar Great War plot and imagery points (Winspear has very obviously read Regeneration) in fairly predictable ways. It's quite comfortable with using the disfigured men as a chorus of pity or horror as occasion requires, without inquiring too deeply into their lives. Maisie herself is a class chameleon who moves in and out of all social situations with ease, and who (thanks to her training with Maurice Blanche and a wise old plot device from India) has the ability to calm suicidal murderers by placing a hand on their chest and thinking calming thoughts at them. The killer is Batman-villain-esque. Nothing hurts because nothing is real.

I'm definitely inclined to be more critical of Maisie Dobbs (published in 2003) than I would be of an identical book written in 1929. Why is that? Maisie's apparently effortless class-chameleonhood would seem more earnestly progressive and less like holodeck handwaving, for one thing. Random injections of Eastern Wisdom from stock Eastern wise men and dubious vision-board "psychology" would be mildly amusing relics of a bygone age rather than irritatingly persistent cliches of this one. I'd probably be a little more sympathetic to the odd ending, for whatever reason.

Am I really opposed to holodeck handwaving? Not at all, in theory. In practice, I don't know. It's a delicate balance. I enjoyed Maisie a lot more than that other holodeck heroine of historical detection, Mary Russell, even though in theory I should like difficult, bratty, analytical Russell better than Maisie, who is so devoid of flaws as to be practically faceless herself, and who is constantly tilting her head to one side to show sympathetic interest. But the prose was less labored and faster-moving, and there were no pre-existing characters for me to have strong opinions about.

What I'm Reading Now

I thought The Secret of Chimneys was going to be a Country House Party Murder Classic, but instead it's a hybrid: spies and blackmail and plucky Canadian con men and fake Balkan countries, all getting ready to converge on a house party. A couple of factions are vying for control of a politician's memoirs, because something something British interests in the Balkans. Spooky Bolsheviks and awkward "foreigner" dialogue abound:

The Baron shook his head sadly. "No, no through the hat you talk. Let us to business come. One thousand pounds you are to have, is it not so? You see, I have the good information got."

It's not the worst thing I could be reading, but I'm feeling a little impatient for everyone to get to the country house and start stabbing each other so I'll have fewer characters to keep track of.

What I Plan to Read Next

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Four: a deservedly famous Christie and one with a bad reputation. And, if my pre-order shipping alert isn't lying about arrival times, the latest fact-filled adventure from The Most Comfortable Man in London!


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 31st, 2016 02:05 pm (UTC)
YAY THE MOST COMFORTABLE MAN IN LONDON!!!!! I should put that on hold at the library.

I'm also glad that you wrote a longer review of Maisie Dobbs, mostly because that means I now know not to read it, although also because this sort of book is so entertaining at secondhand. She puts a hand on the murderer's heart and thinks calming thoughts at him! I guess it does at least take some guts to get close enough to a murderer to touch his chest? But still, oh wow, that's ridiculous.
Nov. 1st, 2016 02:20 am (UTC)
It's time for tea and crumpets!
It's time for candlelight!
It's time for infodumping at the Comfortdome tonight!

. . . or actually tomorrow, if my shipment update is telling the truth. ANYWAY. I'm definitely looking forward to clearing the books off my armchair and settling in, Most Comfortable Man in London style.

In Maisie's defense, the Calming Thoughts Technique sort of works in context? Sort of. It's silly, but weapons-grade empathy is supposed to be Maisie's special knack.
Oct. 31st, 2016 02:46 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes, I should definitely not read any more Maisie Dobbs. But I can also see how they could easily be fun if you were less likely to get hung up on such things. (And, oh, I hate characters without flaws! I've never met a non-flawed person in my life despite knowing plenty of amazingly lovely people, where do authors get them?)

Hmm, you know what, I re-read a lot of Miss Marple more recently, but I am clearly overdue for a Poirot re-read sometime. (Or in other words, I can remember nothing about The Secret of Chimneys, except... I can almost remember it. Was that where there was a thing I didn't like? Or was that another one?? Only a re-read could reveal the truth!) I can't remember anything about The Big Four, except that possibly I found it disappointing, although maybe I didn't (I think I did) so maybe its reputation is deserved? Only you can say! ;-)
Nov. 1st, 2016 02:04 am (UTC)
Oh, Maisie! I'm probably being a little unfair. It's not that she doesn't have flaws! She is way too high-handed to be a working PI, for example. Her "I only take cases that will let me lecture my clients about the importance of trust" stance would be better suited to Poirot or Holmes than someone whom we're told has bills to pay. It's just that no one ever notices she has flaws. Her clients are happy to be lectured and thank her with tears in their eyes. Her co-workers are only allowed to resent her getting above her station for a few minutes, because they have to admit she works just as hard as they do on less sleep, and soaks up all those ancient languages besides! The disfigured men are grateful that she has come barging embarrassingly into their sanctuary to save them from murder and themselves. It was fun, though.

Miss Marple is the best, but you won't run out of Poirot as quickly! I feel like Poirot has more of the really virtuoso mysteries than Marple, but I won't know for sure until I've read them all.

If the thing you didn't like is "Christie makes up fake Balkan names so that everyone can make fun of how hard they are to pronounce," that's the one! Other than that, I'm not sure yet. There's nothing wrong with it, I just tend (unfairly) to groan a little when international intrigue rears its head

ETA Secret of Chimneys isn't a Poirot, though! I'm pretty sure it's a standalone.

Edited at 2016-11-01 02:30 am (UTC)
Nov. 1st, 2016 06:28 pm (UTC)
Well, that explains why I don't remember The Secret of Chimneys so much. It's not Marple or Poirot, therefore why would I re-read it? :-D

Poirot does have the technically brilliant mysteries, but then this is only right and proper, because Poirot is a showman, Miss Marple is the embodiment of stealth awesome and would much rather you didn't notice she was there so she can continue to mislead people into underestimating her. poirot is hurt by underestimation.

The Secret of Chimneys sounds like it ought to involve Poirot, though. ITV should have just put him in it anyway, like they did with Miss Marple. (She was not in enough books for their tv show, it was terrible.)

Maisie no doubt has her own charms, but not everybody need fall for them (unless they're in the book. which is kind of sinister, Maisie).
Oct. 31st, 2016 09:20 pm (UTC)
Nov. 1st, 2016 01:49 am (UTC)
I hope your week's off to a good start!
Oct. 31st, 2016 11:15 pm (UTC)
I have a feeling I may have read Roger Ackroyd many years ago, when I was in bed with the flu and a huge temperature. Can't remember. The Big Four was pretty silly, IMO, but made a mildly entertaining TV episode when they got rid of all the overseas travel and changed the ending.

Chimneys was a lot of fun, I thought, with traces of Wodehouse. She was letting her hair den with that one.
Nov. 1st, 2016 01:49 am (UTC)
We'll see what happens! I've read Roger Ackryod before, so I know what to expect and am looking forward to it. I tend not to like the international intrigue ones as much, however much fun Christie is having. . . but we'll see

ETA But this isn't even true! The Man in the Brown Suit is all international intrigue all the time and I loved it. So I don't know what I'm talking about.

Edited at 2016-11-01 10:54 am (UTC)
Nov. 1st, 2016 03:09 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you've read Maisie Dobbs it sounds fun, but I suspect she would be irritating to me. I'd end up chucking a book (or her book) at her sympathetic ways - sounds more patronising!
Nov. 2nd, 2016 02:12 am (UTC)
Maisie? Patronizing? No, she's just trying to help the benighted natives of 1929 achieve their best lives now and heal the war-wounds in their souls through mindfulness meditation! THEY LIKE IT.

(she is a little on the patronizing side).
Nov. 2nd, 2016 04:11 pm (UTC)
How long until Maisie's "subjects" crack and start trying to murder her? Book three?;p
Nov. 7th, 2016 12:17 am (UTC)
We'll find out! (maybe)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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