Dammit, Maisie Dobbs, You Let Me Down Again

Few pieces of art stay mindblowing for long. A great TV show is only red hot for a season or two. A favorite band releases dud albums. Most novels sag in the middle; most great movies let us down in the end. And a play that's brilliant one night may be flabby the next. It's no surprise. Brilliance is a passing thing.

We live in an era of media glut. Hollywood may be making less movies than ever before, and the major publishing houses may be spewing out less fiction, but music, TV and small-scale theater is as fertile as a farmer's daughter in the springtime. (I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but it's an appealingly filthy image.) This means we don't have to be satisfied with anything less than brilliant entertainment. Once a piece of amusement becomes less than perfectly satisfying, we can discard it, and move on to something else, like a bored Roman emperor ordering a pair of gladiators killed so he can skip ahead to the next fight.

It's hedonistic. It's fun. And there's nothing sadder than having to move on to the next thing.

There is an acute sense of disappointment tha comes when we realize that, shit, this thing I like isn't perfect any more. I've written about it before as regards television, and this weekend I encountered it again, this time in print.

I'm in a dry stretch as far as fiction goes. My preferred vice is crime fiction, and aside from the relentless pleasure that comes from reading Ed McBain, I haven't read anything truly wonderful since I picked up Larry Block's When The Sacred Ginmill Closes last summer. This is partly a problem of genre. A devotee of a form that lends itself to formula can hardly be surprised when he goes months or years without stumbling over something original. But I'm not looking for a reinvention of the form. All I wanted was something well-written, amusing and fresh—something that didn't have to do with serial killers.

(As an aside, is there anything less interesting than a serial killer? I can enjoy it once in a while, but in general, they're just crackpots. Crazy people do crazy shit. Where's the fun in that? Stories about serial killers aren't even really murder mysteries—they're butchery, and it makes me yawn.)

On vacation this weekend, a book called Maisie Dobbs caught my eye. A mystery starring a plucky young woman in 1920's London, whose only weapon is keen observation and an empathetic sense forged in the trenches of World War I France? Might it possibly be a real detective novel, and not a suffocating cozy mystery? The praise quote on the front—from the New York Times, no less!—told me to "be prepared to be astonished." I decided to take the chance.

I'm coming quite late to this party. The first in a ten book (so far) series, Maisie Dobbs was published in 2003. Lots of people have heard of, read and loved this series—as my bookseller informed me, it's her mother in law's favorite. If Jacqueline Winspear's work had passed me by, it's just because I make a habit of avoiding mystery novels written by people with names like Jacqueline Winspear, for fear that I might be wandering into another Agatha Christie trap

Have I mentioned lately how much I hate cozy mysteries?

But Maisie Dobbs is no cozy, and it charmed me immediately. The hero is plucky, but not insufferably so—a battle-scarred nurse who has put every shilling she has into a detective agency, and spends much of the book's first hundred pages pinching pennies. (I like my detectives realistically broke. Every PI novel starts with a complaint about how little work the snoop is getting, and yet he never has trouble paying for his car, women, or booze.) Her first investigation is peppered with hints of a traumatic past—hints that make us interested in Maisie without slowing down the action. The book is quiet, mannered and grim, and I found myself getting my hopes up. "This is brilliant," I thought, "and there are nine more in the series!" And then, around the hundred page mark, the narrative comes to a howling halt.

As if not confident that her heroine was holding our attention, Winspear decides to dive into young Maisie's origin story, leaping back to the day of her mother's death, some decades before. Maisie is taken into service by a kindly, progressive London Lady, and what follows is chapter upon chapter of wheezing Upstairs, Downstairs action that is as deflating as one of the more predictable storylines in Downton Abbey. What was fresh turns sour, and the pages of my attractive little Penguin edition, I find, begin to turn much more slowly.

It was around the third chapter in Lady Rowan's London house that I began to feel it creeping in. Disappointment had returned. I'm still going to finish Maisie Dobbs, and if the ending is more Sherlock than Downton, I'll probably pick up the sequel, in hopes that it avoids dallying around the Christie-fied manner house that I loathe so much. But the balloon is popped. This isn't going to be My New Favorite Thing. I'll have to move on to the next bit of culture.