Wednesday, May 27, 2020

“Birds of a Feather” by Jacqueline Winspear – Agony Preserved in Stasis

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear (Book cover)
Jacqueline Winspear created with the Maisie Dobbs series a goose which still lays golden eggs to this very day. In the second novel of the series, titled Birds of a Feather, Maisie is hired during the Spring of 1930 to locate a runaway heiress.

What at first promises to be a walk in the park turns into a grim massacre as three of old friends of the heiress are found murdered.
With there obviously being some connection between the two events, Maisie sets out on a path bound to take her into the everlasting tragedy of the First World War.

Jacqueline Winspear Maisie back into the Fray

Quite soon we will find ourselves a hundred years removed from the Second World War, and generally-speaking, I think we can say the world has been trending towards a greater state of international peace than ever before.

The majority of us have actually never seen or even given much thought to the consequences of war, to the way an enormous loss of life ends up affecting a society. In Jacqueline Winspear's second novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, titled Birds of a Feather, we are taken into 1930 London, right in-between the two world wars, where a far-reaching mystery awaits our protagonist fresh from her very first mystery.

The story begins innocently enough, with Maisie noticing a small but strange change in her assistant's overall behavior, while also receiving a request to meet with one of London's most prominent and successful merchants.

With this not being the type of request one can refuse, Maisie heads to their meeting and learns he needs her to accomplish a relatively simple task: to find his missing daughter, heiress to the family fortune. Though there might be some ulterior motives at play, Maisie accepts the job, hoping it stays as simple as it started.

Pretty soon things take a drastic turn for the worse, as three of the daughter's friends are discovered to have been murdered. With the picture getting foggier by the minute, the race against the clock begins to bring the girl back home alive, find the one responsible, and just as importantly, understand the motive behind such a convoluted and needlessly-bloody tableau.

With London still recovering and reshaping itself from the Great War, Maisie finds her path to the buried truth filled with obstacles from all directions, especially as she inches closer to the past capable of tying it all together.

Connections of a Mystery in Birds of a Feather

Depending on our personal opinions, there are plenty of factors which we could consider as the most important ones when it becomes a question of writing a good mystery novel, from the characters being believable to the mystery being engaging.

Personally, I think the most important factor could be how well the author is capable of linking all the events and characters in his story. Do the lines drawn between the people, their thoughts and actions make logical sense? Are they all united into a cohesive web which defies our attempts to poke holes in it? On the whole, I think Birds of a Feather checks those boxes.

The mystery itself is all about the connection of various dots, which lead further and further down into the deep past and to increasingly important people. It all feels like it unfolds in a very logical and organic manner, with one discovery leading to the next, with nothing being forced in there because the plot required it.

I couldn't think of any plot holes, which is quite commendable considering how far-spanning and complex the mystery turned out to be.

In terms of characters, Maisie is really the only one who gets a full dose of development, but this doesn't stop the secondary actors from making the most of the few dimensions they are given. Many of them evoke a sense of curiosity, and we can seldom really be certain of what their plans, intentions or roles are in the whole story.

In other words, our limited knowledge of them adds a welcome layer of mystery and uncertainty. Regardless of whether the author planned on it, I think it's admirable she managed to turn a shortcoming into an asset.

The Heavy Toll of War

While the mystery, its resolution and the unveiling of the villain are at the center of the stage most of the time, everything else around it is colored by an expose of the effects the First World War took on London and its people.

Winspear rarely lets us forget about the climate in which her characters are living, and does her best in giving us historically-accurate depictions of what life was like back in those days.

While of course reading about the consequences of war will thankfully never come close to the actual experience, the author's words on the matter did stick with me and made me more interested in the topic.

As I mentioned above, Maisie is the only character who really gets the full development treatment, and her story also echoes this overarching theme in the novel.

Without giving too much away, her lover laying in a coma at one of the countless clinics dedicated to the rehabilitation of front-line combatants, and her assistant Billy suffering for thirteen years from a leg wound which never healed. In one way or another, WWI follows Maisie throughout her life as well as her career, and pokes its head in every hole it can.

On this note, I will say there is one element which I think some people might not be too fond of, and it's the overall pace of the book.

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear (Book cover)
While personally I have no problem with taking my time to read descriptions which set the ambiance and take us back through history, the mystery does take a back-seat on a few occasions to Winspear's descriptions, and as a result the pace is slower than it could have been. If you are into it purely for the mystery and nothing else, it's something you would have to consider dealing with.

The Final Verdict

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear is an excellent continuation to the Maisie Dobbs series, and while it does take its time in some places, it's all for the good cause of providing us a deep and extensive dive into post-war London.

The mystery itself is also quite engaging in its own right, and so I can safely recommend this novel to anyone interested in detective mysteries set in this very specific, and in my opinion, criminally-underexplored time period.

Jacqueline Winspear (Author)

Jacqueline Winspear

Personal site

Jacqueline Winspear is a mystery author hailing from the United Kingdom, best-known for writing the Maisie Dobbs Series, taking place after WWI and following the titular inspector's investigations across over fourteen books at this point.

The first novel in the series, Maisie Dobbs, earned her numerous award nominations, Such as the Edgar Award for Best Novel and the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Additionally, she was also a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2015.

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