I recently finished the latest Maisie Dobbs novel, An Incomplete Revenge, and it was an interesting experience because this is the first in the series (of five novels so far) that I read in book form rather than listening to it on audio. I have to say it was very different reading as opposed to listening. I enjoyed the novel and got wrapped up in the story, but I found myself more critical of the writing and plotting than I was with the earlier books.
The story takes up interesting themes, particularly class and racial tensions; it’s set in a small town known for growing hops and every fall a number of people from various places and backgrounds convene there to pick the hops for a little break from the city and a way to make some money. There are Londoners who come for some fresh air, including Billy Beale, Maisie’s assistant, and there are gypsies who set up camp for a while, working but keeping themselves aloof. This creates some tension, as the locals resent the presence of these other groups, although they rely on them too.
But the tension in this particular town is even more complicated, as it has a dark and mysterious history, which it quickly becomes Maisie’s job to uncover. During World War I (or simply The War, as they would have called it), a zeppelin raid destroyed one of the town’s families, and the memory of this violence still haunts the place. No one wants to talk about what happened. And no one wants to talk about the series of fires that have occurred around the same date every year. No one is surprised by these fires and no one calls the authorities for help; they just put the fires out themselves and go on with their business.
So, as is usual in this series, the mystery revolves around the lingering effects of the war, and Maisie must help people face what happened and come to terms with it. She must also come to terms with her own experience — in this novel she faces the death of her war-time sweetheart and needs to learn how to put that episode of her life behind her and move on.
There is a lot going on that I like — the historical aspect, Maisie’s own appeal as a character, the class/race tensions, the spiritual and psychological aspects — but I found myself reading with more of a critical distance than I expected.
One problem is that I thought the dialogue was awkward in places. Now, I never noticed this when I listened to the earlier books on audio, and I find it odd that I would only pick up on it while reading the words. If the dialogue is awkward, wouldn’t it be more noticeable when someone is reading the text rather than less? Perhaps the readers were doing a particularly good job, or perhaps I’m wrong in my initial assumption. Maybe my greater emotional involvement when I’m listening rather than reading means I don’t pick up on awkward spots.
Another issue is that I figured out the mystery, at least most of it, fairly early on. I’ve said before on this blog that if I can figure out the mystery there must be some kind of problem with the plotting, because I’m terrible at figuring things out. I never figure things out. With this book, though, as the plot moved toward the conclusion I found myself just a tiny bit bored with it because there weren’t a whole lot of surprises left.
The truth is, though, that I’m more interested in the characters and the history than I am in the plot, so for me this issue ultimately didn’t matter all that much. I still enjoyed reading this book, and I’m looking forward to future installments in the series. I really want to know what happens to Maisie!