I confess to a love-hate relationship with Maisie Dobbs. To Die But Once is her fourteenth and latest outing in Winspear’s post World War One mystery series which sees Maisie investigate the disappearance of a young apprentice painter. We are now into the early stages of World War Two, and young men have gone off to fight yet another war to end all wars, their loved ones biting their nails at home and fearing the worst. As Maisie makes her way to her office for the start of another day, she spots the local publican in the street and instantly recognises a troubled soul.
Maisie is an investigating psychologist, who helps the police from time to time, as well as the secret service, but her private work is her bread and butter. She pops into the pub for a chat and soon learns that Phil Coombes’s younger son has disappeared. His job painting air-craft hangars for the RAF should see him safely through the war, but he hasn’t been in touch for over a week and before that was complaining about headaches from paint fumes.
What I liked about the book:
- Winspear knows how to create a dramatic plot, and has researched the period really well. Here we have the little-known facts surrounding the anti-flammable paint used on military sites as well as the work of the WAAFE ambulance drivers. Some rather grim facts come to light.
- There’s the evacuation of Dunkirk too, and Maisie’s godson has run off with a mate to help the rescue effort in the mate’s family launch. Lots of drama as Maisie heads out to the coast with her best friend Pricilla (always a fun character with her martinis and cigarette holders), who is desperate to find her son. This creates another interesting story thread and rounds out the plot nicely.
- Another terrific character is Billie, Maisie’s Cockney assistant who adds some a touch of humour. Even when he’s worried desperately about his own son – also caught up in the Dunkirk evacuation – his lively turn of phrase and occasional rhyming slang is a welcome contrast to Maisie’s more earnest manner.
- Wartime London is evocatively described, but I also love Winspear’s sense of the countryside, as Maisie pops down to the estate which belongs to her late husband’s family, and the cottage she inherited from her former boss and mentor, Maurice Blanche.
- Maisie has lively interactions with Scotland Yard cop, Inspector Caldwell, who calls a spade a spade and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He and Maisie have had a few run-ins in the past but now have a grudging respect for each other, and Maisie knows Caldwell has her back.
- This series is easy-reading for sure, but also informative, with Winspear’s keen eye for interesting and little-known aspects of firstly World War One and its aftermath, and the new war which is just getting going. My only grouch is that Maisie would be a little more interesting if she had a few quirks of temperament and was a little less perfect. She always seems to have her work hat on and her super-intuitive skills make her almost super-human.