*****Maisie Dobbs

cup of tea

photo: Raheel Shahid, creative commons license

Though this book hasn’t acquired the patina of age, the legion of fans for the award-winning 13-book series would no doubt enthusiastically endorse its classic status. Having read the first one, I’m eager to read more.

Maisie’s story begins in London in 1929, when she opens her office as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s enormously advantaged—not because she’s born to the upper classes, like the roughly contemporaneous Lord Peter Wimsey—but because of her own pluck, hard work, and keen insight.

Her first client is a man who believes his wife’s strange behavior hides a possible dalliance. Maisie shadows the woman and uncovers something quite different behind her mysterious disappearances. Before she will reveal the wife’s sad secret, she makes sure the husband is prepared to act on her findings and thereby to relieve his wife’s distress.

Maisie’s insights have been cultivated by the celebrated detective Dr. Maurice Blanche. Raised the daughter of a costermonger, financial straits require her to enter service at a young age, and in a long section in the middle of the book, we learn how Maisie’s employer, Lady Rowan, discovers her reading the Lord’s library in the wee hours of the morning. Her intellectual gifts recognized, Maisie’s education is turned over to Lady Rowan’s friend, Dr. Blanche. Hard work subsequently gets her into university. Her academic career, if not her education, is interrupted by World War I, and she serves as an aid station nurse behind the front lines of France.

Now it’s 1929, and though the world powers have signed a peace treaty, for many Britons, the Great War is not over. Both the client’s mysterious wife and Lady Rowan’s own son—suffering from what was then called shell-shock and today we call PTSD—have links to a murky organization called The Retreat, which purports to give veterans who simply cannot live in society a safe haven. But is it what it says it is? By combining a clandestine investigation of The Retreat with Maisie’s strong emotional connection to the experiences of war, author Winspear has created a truly compelling story.

What sets the series apart from the norm is the interplay of psychological elements and Maisie’s strong empathy. Take, for example, the interesting notion drilled into her by Dr. Blanche that, when you pry a story or a confession out of someone, you need to recognize that “the story takes up space as a knot in a piece of wood. If the knot is removed, a hole remains. We must ask ourselves, how will this hole that we have opened be filled?” In other words, investigators’ responsibilities don’t end when they’ve wrung a confession out of someone.

The book is written in an easygoing style, and the details of daily life, manners, and attitudes seem to perfectly fit the post-war era in which it is set. Never stodgy, it moves along briskly, in part thanks to strong secondary characters. The occasional clashes in social strata keep things interesting, as dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey exploited so effectively. In Maisie, I’ve found a terrific new literary companion!

****DIS MEM BER

teenage girl

photo: Tammy McGary, creative commons license

By Joyce Carol Oates – This collection of mostly longish short stories features Oates’s sly humor and penchant for the off-kilter. There’s something just a little bit obsessive, just a little wrong about many of the stories’ protagonists, until there’s a LOT wrong. Someplace along the line, they take a turn into some very dark places.

The disarticulated title of the story, “DIS MEM BER” anticipates the menace underlying the tale of a pre-teen girl fascinated by her older step-cousin—handsome, mysterious, and just disreputable enough to charm a young girl and enrage her father. The first-person narrator mostly misses the sinister potential in his attentions, but you will not, and you read on with growing unease.

Similarly, in the story “Heartbreak,” a lumpy young teen is jealous of her attractive older sister and her budding relationship with their stepfather’s handsome nephew. It opens as follows: “In the top drawer of my step-dad’s bureau the gun was kept,” signaling that Oates will follow Chekhov’s famous advice: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

Although these two tales turn out quite differently, they show an affinity for the voice of a young girl troubled by her sexuality and the impact on men that she has, may have, may never have, wants, and fears. Oates mimics the progress and backtracking and stuttering nature of thought with liberal use of interjected italics and parenthetical phrasing: “Even when Rowan was furious with me, and disgusted with me, still he was fond of me. This I know. It is a (secret) memory I cherish.” These devices in places feel excessive, even intrusive. Parentheses within parentheses send you down a rabbit hole.

Young girls are not the only females prey to second thoughts. The eerie story “The Crawl Space” concerns a widow haunted by—and haunting—the home she shared with her husband, now in other hands. Similarly, in “Great Blue Heron,” a new widow is plagued by her husband’s brother, determined to wrest the executorship of his estate—and, undoubtedly, all his assets—from her. What precisely happens in these two stories, as the women’s ghosts and fantasies take hold, is not clear. Their trace of ambiguity leaves you free to interpret. Letting readers “do some of the work themselves” can be a strength of the short story form.

In “The Drowned Girl,” a college student becomes obsessed with the unexplained death of a fellow student. “Like gnats such thoughts pass through my head. Sometimes in my large lecture classes the low persistent buzzing is such that I can barely hear the professor’s voice and I must stare and stare like a lip-reader.” In this, as in all of these stories, Oates deftly creates a specific, concrete setting for her characters. The believability of these environments makes you believe the characters also are plausible until you’ve traveled with them pretty far into the deep weeds of their bizarre perceptions.

The final story, “Welcome to Friendly Skies!” is not a thematic fit with the others, but ends the book on a decidedly humorous note. Passengers on a you-can-anticipate “ill-fated” flight to Amchitka, Alaska, are taken through the standard airplane safety monologue with a great many ominous additions.

Lawrence Block’s recent multi-authored short story collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, inspired by the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, could not pass up the opportunity to include one of Oates’s lonely—and deliciously skewed—female protagonists.

***Deceits of Borneo

hong kong, woman traveler

(photo: ksobolev0, pixabay)

By H.N. Wake – This is the second full-length thriller by H.N. Wake and a repeat outing for her gutsy female protagonist, CIA Agent Mac Ambrose. (Read my interview with H.N. Wake to find out what she loves about this character.) The action takes place in Hong Kong and various spots in Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur, Miri, and the rain forests of Sarawak Province—with occasional scenes back at the CIA mothership in Langley, Virginia. Wake’s familiarity with Asia and Southeast Asia, gained during more than 20 years’ working overseas for the U.S. government, stands her in good stead here, as the ease and detail with which she describes these lush locales effectively transport the reader right into the setting.

Mac is deep under cover in Hong Kong, at a new job in the Risk Analysis department of a major international financial institution called Legion Bank, and her real identity is known only to one of the bank’s executives. When another Non-Official Cover CIA agent—Josh Halloway—goes missing out of Kuala Lumpur, Mac’s boss back in Langley tells her to find him.

Gradually we learn her concern about Halloway’s disappearance is not just collegial solidarity, it’s also personal. Halloway is handsome, charming, and intriguing, and they’d met and connected in Hong Kong. Mac was falling for him. The Bank provides cover for her search, when she’s assigned to the risk appraisal of a potential Malaysian client, Alghaba Financing, a major player in Malaysia’s timber and palm oil industries. If the bank takes the company on, it will receive millions of dollars in fees.

Given the opportunity to kill two birds at once, Mac flies to the Malaysian capital. When she checks in with the U.S. Embassy, she finds the ambassador has a chip on his shoulder the size of a teak log and is unwilling to help her. Evidence on the ground is scant, but Mac picks up Halloway’s trail, and the game is literally afoot in the jungles of Borneo. Wake’s choice of a female protagonist with the investigatory skills, cunning, and physical courage to undertake her next steps make this a refreshing antidote to the overdose of testosterone in many thrillers.

However, the goings-on back at Langley aren’t as persuasive. They add complication and some coincidence that detract from the main story. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how people in the field always regard the folks back at the main office: “What are they thinking?” At times Mac’s own behavior is a bit murky. She frequently presses a little too hard in trying to get information from a potential informant, and I never did figure out how she got the key to Josh’s room at the Miri Beach Resort.

What Mac discovers in the rain forest, the lengths people will go to keep her discovery a secret, and the fate of Josh Halloway are the key questions of this compelling story. Wake knows how to put together an exciting narrative, an exotic and interesting setting, and believable characters. H.N. Wake is an exciting new author worth tracking.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.