Reviews: Mystery/Thriller

Review: “Maisie Dobbs” by Jacqueline Winspear [2003]

I have been anticipating reading this series ever since I first heard about it from If You Can Read This and also from seeing its gorgeous covers floating around at work.

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in the series starring…Maisie Dobbs! Set in 1929, Maisie is trying to establish herself as a private investigator in a country, and world, that is still haunted by the horror of WWI. As a single, young woman working in an unorthodox career, Maisie was always going to be a little unusual. Her first case brings her Christopher Davenham who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. To Davenham’s surprise, Maisie questions his intentions with any information Maisie will provide him about his wife:

“The information I gather will be presented in a context. It is in light of that context that we must continue our discussion, in order for you and your wife to build a future.”

“My job is rather more complex than you might have imagined, Mr Davenham. I am responsible for the safety of all parties. And this is so even when I am dealing with society’s more criminal elements.” – p. 14

Integrity and morality is what sets Maisie apart from the typical private investigator. She does eventually get to the bottom of Davenham’s wife’s regular, unexplained disappearances which is connected to the aftermath of the war, which in turn forces Maisie to remember her own past.

Born into a lowly, but well loved, family, Maisie is sent at the age of 13 to the Belgravia estate of Lady and Lord Compton to work as a maid. Harbouring a passion for reading and displaying deep intelligence, Maisie soon concocts a way to read her way through the Compton’s rich library undetected by sneaking up early in the morning before the household chores.

The feeling inside that [Maisie] experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew that she needed this sustenance as surely as her body need is fuel. – p. 87

The secret visits to the library continued for some time before she is caught out by Lady Compton. This ultimately works out to Maisie’s advantage who demonstrates her intelligence and  becomes the Compton’s and their family friend, a highly regarded intellectual, Dr. Maurice Blanche’s protege. Life goes quite well for Maisie until the outbreak of the war where she eventually volunteers herself as a nurse and she is shipped to France.

The past and present becomes interconnected. To solve her case, Maisie must not only analyse the physical, but also the psychological, scars left by the war, horrors unforseen by anybody in the world.

Maisie Dobbs is a lovely first book and establishes the characters and setting. This is indeed somewhat a cozy crime fiction but the psychological examination of WWI and the surviving soldiers return to society gives it an edge. Maisie is an interesting character but I couldn’t help thinking some areas of her life were cliched and at times, she seemed a bit weak. However, I did thoroughly enjoy this first book and will seek out the other Maisie Dobbs books soon! And is it terrible of me to think that this would make the most lovely mini series?

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Review: “Before I Go to Sleep” by S. J. Watson [2011]

S. J. Watson’s debut novel is a pretty terrific and creepy read. Before I Go to Sleep is narrated by a woman named Christine who, as we discover at the same time pace as Christine, has a unique form of amnesia. Ever since an accident more than two decades earlier, Christine cannot form new long term memories but has the ability to retain short term memories for the day. When she goes to sleep, every memory that has been made during the day is lost again.

Every morning Christine wakes up not knowing who or where she is or even which moment in time she is in. She could wake up thinking she is an eighteen year old or a newlywed. It could be any point in time leading up to the day of the accident. Every morning, Christine’s husband Ben needs to remind her of who and where she is and go through what has happened. The bathroom wall is covered with various photographs of their life together:

Photographs. Taped to the wall, to the mirror itself. Pictures, interspersed with yellow pieces of gummed paper, felt-tip notes, damp and curling. I choose one at random. Christine, it says, and an arrow points to a photograph of me – this new me, this old me – in which I am sitting on a bench on a quayside, next to a man. The name seems familiar, but only distantly so, as if I am having to make an effort to believe that it is mine. In the photograph we are both smiling at the camera, holding hands. He is handsome, attractive, and when I look closely I can see that it is the same man I slept with, the one I left in the bed. The word Ben is written beneath it, and next to it Your husband. – p. 13

When Ben leaves for work that morning, Christine gets a phone call from a Dr. Nash who claims to be a neurologist that she has been secretly seeing while Ben is at work. Initially suspicious and skeptical, Dr. Nash tells Christine to look in her diary which she can find in her bag and she will see that she has written in their appointment. Christine agrees to meet up with Dr. Nash and during their meeting, he gives her her diary that Christine has been writing in for the past few months in order to help her remember. When she opens to the first page, Christine sees that she has written DON’T TRUST BEN.

This book is quite the thriller. Even though it has a small cast of characters made up largely of Dr. Nash, Ben and Christine, I never knew how the story would turn out right until the very end. A few of my suspicions were right but Watson makes you work for it and doubt your guesses numerous times beforehand. I have to say, however, that the ending does make you want to go back and re-read the book and it will probably be even more disturbing the second time around.

Review: “Maigret in Court” by Georges Simenon [1960]; translated from French by Robert Brain [1961]

I had never heard of Georges Simenon or of Maigret (which I keep reading as Marguerite) until I pulled this rather eye-catching book from a library shelf. Simenon and Maigret are apparently quite popular and a staple in Europe and Maigret features in a long running series.

Jules Maigret is the Chief Inspector of Paris. He is in his mid-fifties and two years off from retirement. He approaches his cases wisely and intelligently and easily shows his expertise as the top cop. Despite being toughened up through his long career and experiences, Maigret possesses great integrity and compassion. Maigret in Court opens with the trial of Gaston Meurant who is accused to have murdered his aunt and a young girl in her care with the motive of stealing his aunt’s money, which were pieces of gold, that she kept stored in a vase in her apartment. When Maigret takes the stand and relays the case, he realises how disenchanted he has become with the court system.

They had suddenly been plunged into a depersonalised world where everyday phrases seemed no longer to be current, where the most commonplace actions were translated into cut-and-dried formulas. The judges’ black robes, the ermine, the red gown of the advocate-general further increased this feeling or some ceremony with changeless ritual, where the individual counted for nothing. – p. 20

Maigret thinks that the evidence doesn’t add up and believes that Meurant is innocent. While on the stand, Maigret reveals more details of the case that was previously unknown and it completely changes the trajectory of the trial.

The second half of the story follows the attempt of Maigret to find the real murderer to prove Meurant’s innocence and what transpires are some good old-fashioned sleuthing around Paris and France.

This novella was a very interesting read. It was little difficult to get into at the beginning but I soon became engrossed in it. Many aspects of the first part of the story, during the trial, was really reminiscent of Albert Camus’ The Outsider: the hot, repressive court room and, more significantly, the disenchantment and the alienation of the individuals within the legal proceedings. It’s fascinating that it can be so relevant in our society today:

Was not everything distorted there? Not through any fault of the judges, the jury, the witnesses, nor on account of the criminal code or the procedure, but because human beings were suddenly reduced, if one can so put it, to a few words, a few sentences. – p. 49

The second part of the story reminded me somewhat of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and his detective Philip Marlowe. A great read and a great find!

Review: “Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Sugar” by M. C. Beaton [2008]

This is my first book in the Agatha Raisin series and it was a such a charming and enchanting read. I have also only just found out that M. C. Beaton also writes the popular  Hamish Macbeth series. Ashamedly, I also never knew it was a book series and always thought it was a T.V. series because my rather eccentric and very funny second year History lecturer kept enthusing about Hamish Macbeth and Robert Carlyle during lectures. What’s this got to do with History? Well, Robert Carlyle also played Hitler in a film. Anyway, enough of a digression and on with the review!

Having no prior knowledge of the books and its characters, I didn’t find it at all difficult to warm to them. Agatha Raisin, a middle-aged man crazy woman and a rather excellent private investigator, runs her own successful detective agency in the quiet English country town of Cotswolds. She had escaped from London after a lengthy, and quite successful, career as a publicist. In Spoonful of Sugar, Agatha is called upon by a Parish priest to help them market their small town festival in which the jam competition is the highlight event. The campaign is successful but it is soon revealed that the jam has been spiked with LSD and several old ladies goes tripping, some literally. Among trying to solve the case of the spiked jam, Agatha also chases a handsome and charismatic widower who she is absolutely besotted with and attempts to solve his wife’s strange death that occurred a few years before.

This was really a fun and light read. I finished it in one sitting and was thrilled to bits with it. There are light twists and turns in the plot that keeps things interesting and it is a very relaxed whodunnit. It’s very much a cozy mystery and quite quaint which I liked. Agatha, which I’m sure is a play on author Agatha Christie, is somewhat of an anti-hero. Man chasing, somewhat vain, rumpled, chain-smoking and with a penchant for gin and tonic, Agatha is a great character.

I’m hooked onto the series and on M. C. Beaton. I’ve ordered the first in the series, Agatha Christie and the Quiche of Death and plan to read them chronologically. The cover illustrations by Francis Farmar are also so beautiful and befitting.