Saturday, March 7, 2015

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear (A Maisie Dobbs mystery)

Ah, internet reviews. Is there anything more entertaining, fascinating, repulsive and compelling? Few things can restore one's faith in humanity, or obliterate it, in the span of mere seconds the way a stream of people suddenly given a virtual bully pulpit can.

When it comes to the Maisie Dobbs series on Goodreads, comments abound from readers who love Maisie and the series, but grow weary of our heroine's Pollyanna perfection.  It's a concern I've echoed myself, in fact.

Amongst the many reviews for Elegy for Eddie, however, a particularly astute Goodreads user articulated a great insight into the Maisie Dobbs series and another reason some readers struggle with it. The reader said Jacqueline Winspear was moving away from mystery genre conventions and gravitating more towards writing novels.

I couldn't agree more, but unlike some readers who are disgruntled by this shift, I think Elegy for Eddie exemplifies why this sea change is actually something to look forward to. This installment features themes that necessitate a character complexity that is difficult for the rigid constraints of commercial genre fiction to accommodate.

Basically, Winspear is transcending from the commercial mystery genre into literary fiction, in which the whodunnit is but one thread woven through a complex tapestry of humanity.

For example, Masie, adjusting to newly inherited wealth and in an increasingly serious relationship with the son of her former employer, finds herself struggling spiritually and mentally in this installment.

Her inner struggle with sudden wealth syndrome manifests in the real world when Maisie's working-class past is thrust directly into her present, very financially comfortable professional life. Briefly, Maisie is asked to solve the murder of one of the Covent Garden costermongers  her father used to work with. Those asking are the victim's surviving friends, men who knew Maisie as "Frankie's girl."
Covent Garden today

Winspear's writing shines in interactions such as these. Maisie is forced to confront the somewhat awkward reality that she has indeed done better than her father and his peers financially. She is now an educated, independent and adult woman.

But Maisie finds herself struggling -- just a bit -- to think of herself as an adult in the presence of these men, all of whom suddenly address her as "Miss Dobs" and "ma'am." How can she accept the payment they offer? But how could she hurt their pride and not?

Judging by some of the more negative reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads, this is the kind of introspection that some readers don't have patience for, but I feel lends depth to a character that was in serious danger of becoming a two-dimensional Mary Sue.

This book is also one of the better examples I have ever read in which a complete portrait of the victim is painted through realistic answers to the investigator's questions. So often mystery authors make the mistake of having friends or acquaintances of the murder victim(s) "remember" things in a way people in real life just don't, using well-articulated, perceptive language to describe anecdotes in crisp, pristine detail. Some writers can pull this off without deflating the story (after all, this is pretty much the modus operandi of the entire Holmes canon). But usually recountings like that come across as implausible given the human mind's fallibility when it comes to memory. Winspear avoids this in Elegy for Eddie and, for the most part, the characters' recollections and anecdotes are realistic.

Unfortunately, Maisie's character development isn't quite enough to save the surprising plot sloppiness in this installment. Without going into a synopsis rewrite or spoilers, suffice it to say there are several murders and only one of them is actually explained in any real way. Some mysteries can have realistic, sloppy endings and are improved by them. After all, real life detectives do have cases that are never solved. But, perhaps because the decisions Maisie makes are so jarringly discordant with who she has been up until this point, it doesn't work here.

So, although this is not one of the best Maisie Dobbs mysteries, it was one of the best Maisie Dobbs books in the series. Much of that is due to the fact that Maisie is forced to accept that she must change as a person. 

She is called on to the carpet for her do-gooder meddling in people's lives, confronted with the fact that perhaps her generosity with the Beales might be justifiable cause for some resentment and forced to acknowledge that she doesn't quite know how to maintain her independence while being in a relationship.

Maisie's growth and change is what makes this installment more "novel-esque." It is also what will have me eager to read the next installment. But unfortunately, the mystery suffers for it.  

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