Maisie Dobbs: An Incomplete Revenge

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!

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

16 responses to “Maisie Dobbs: An Incomplete Revenge

  1. I haven’t read this one yet so was very interested in your review, which raises all kind of intriguing questions about the differences between audio books and usual reading. I imagine an audio version cannot help but emphasise the dramatic elements of the story and perhaps they are less evident in a straight reading. I often find the narrative voice in these stories curiously flat, even if it always discusses interesting things. I agree with you – the historical dimension is undoubtedly the very best part of this series!

  2. I’ve only read one of these although there are two others on the tbr pile, but I’m interested in your comments, because while I enjoyed the plot and social aspects of the first novel I did find the dialogue less satisfactory. I think for me at least the difference in the aural/visual experience is to do with timing. When I’m reading I can stop and think about what is on the page, with the audio book I have to move on and therefore don’t have the time to pick up problems. Perhaps that has had something to do with what you have noticed this time round.

  3. I just finished the fourth book in the Maisie Dobbs series, so was interested to read your review of this. Like you, I am most interested in the characters and history rather than the mystery. This is why I think the first book in the series remains my favorite. I’m glad to hear there is more about Maisie’s life in this one.

  4. Listening is definitely a different experience than reading I think. Like Ann mentioned it goes so much faster and you just have time to keep track of what’s happening rather than slow down and be more critical of writing style. I think I’m more interested in the characters and social aspect of the story than the mystery as well.

  5. I’m so glad you posted this review. Another blog friend recommended Maisie to me, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read one of her books. Based on what you wrote, it sounds like a mystery series I would really enjoy. I also want to read Catriona MacPherson’s mysteries, which have been on my bedside table too long. Have you read them, and if so, do you like them? I think there are only three that have been published so far.

    Regarding audiobooks, I’m currently experimenting with them. The tone of voice of a good reader can only help enhance my understanding of the author’s meaning (i.e. sarcasm), but a poorly matched narrator will kill an otherwise wonderful book for me. I borrowed a nonfiction book on Tuscany from the library that had a female reader with a Southern twang, and couldn’t get past the first “page” or two. Her accent was so unsuited to the region she was reading about! :)

  6. adevotedreader

    I don’t like audiobooks unless they are readings of poetry- as long as I can see, I prefer to read the words for myself.

    I tried An Incomplete Revenge as so many bloggers liked it and it sounded interesting. Unfortunately I found the dialogue and the historical detail a bit forced and the mystery predictable. Definitely not for me, which is a pity as I love a good historical crime fiction book.

  7. Teresa

    I read the first two (and a half) Maisie books earlier this year. They were the books I took with me to London. I lost the third book before I was halfway finished and didn’t mourn the loss, so I guess Maisie’s not for me. I did like reading about the period, but I agree with others that the writing felt kind of flat and stilted. Maybe I’ll try it on audio!

    It is funny that you’re blogging about audio because I’ve been thinking about the whole audiobook question and was going to blog on it later this week. I’m listening to So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger on audio now. I think I would enjoy it in print, but the audio just isn’t working. I think the ability to stop and reread is crucial for some books, but I never know which books will require that sort of leisurely contemplative reading until I’m well into them. And then sometimes I’m surprised by what does work. The Road by Cormac McCarthy blew me away on audio, and his prose seems like it would require a more leisurely read.

  8. So interesting. I read the first book in the series and, like you, was far more interested in the history and her life story than the actual mystery (which seemed very minor), but I did think it dragged a bit. I blamed that mostly on the fact I was fasting for medical reasons when I read it, though, and that makes me pretty impatient. Then, I listened to _Messenger of Truth_ and liked it better. I assumed it was because Winspear was getting better as she developed more as a writer, but you’ve got me wondering now if it didn’t have more to do with the fact it was an audiobook (whose reader happens to be VERY good).

  9. Interesting comparison between listening and reading. I know when I am listening to a book I am always doing something else–knitting, cleaning, driving–so my whole attention isn’t focused on the book. When I am reading I am only reading and so I think that might make me more likely to pick up awkward spots and be more critical.

  10. I’m with you – if I figure out the endings of mysteries too early on I am always disappointed. I think that’s why for as lovely as What the Dead Know was, I ended up with an unsatisfactory reading experience…I knew within the first twenty pages the ending…

  11. Litlove, interesting that you found the books flat — I hadn’t put it in those terms, but I’m seeing now that you’re right. Still, I’ll probably pick up the next in the series when it comes out …

    Ann — I’m glad I’m not along in my reaction to the dialogue! I think you’re right about timing — listening to the audio version things slide right by me that I pick up on while reading.

    Tara — I agree that the first one was the best so far — it had the most history and character development, so your conclusion makes sense, as many people seem to agree those are the best part of the series!

    Danielle — that’s why I enjoy listening to “lighter” type books so much, I’m sure — I don’t notice their flaws and don’t have to worry about missing the great writing or the brilliant ideas.

    Debby — I do hope you like the Maisie Dobbs novels when you get to them! If you don’t mind some imperfections, they are really quite good. I haven’t heard of MacPherson’s mysteries, so thank you for pointing them out. That Tuscany book with a southern reader would have driven me crazy too. What were they thinking??

    Adevotedreader — it’s interesting that you listen to poetry — that’s the one genre I’m probably least likely to listen to, unless I know the poetry very well, but I do see that listening to poetry could be a great experience, as the sound matters so much. Perhaps I should listen to some of my favorite poets and experience their work that way.

    Teresa — I bet The Road was great to listen to — but difficult too, as I’m sure the suspense was hard to bear! In fact, I’m not sure I could handle it. You’re right that it can be hard to figure out what works on audio — I usually go for lighter forms of fiction so I don’t worry too much if I’m missing things.

    Emily — very interesting because the first book in the series was one of my favorites! I had listened to a later one first, though, and so was hooked on the character and really wanted to know more about her origins. But yeah, I suspect your trouble with the first one might have had to do with not listening to it!

    Stefanie — yes, I listen in the same way too — for me, almost exclusively while I’m driving. So I do miss things and therefore am less critical. With some forms of fiction, that’s not a bad thing at all!

    Courtney — to know within the first 20 pages is a REAL problem! Not a good sign at all. What a disappointment!

  12. I read the first book in the series a while ago and was a little iffy about it. Its interesting that you thought the dialogue was stilted in this book, because I thought the same about the original. I was definitely interested by the history of this series, as opposed to the plot, which sounded as though it had been lifted straight out of Upstairs, Downstairs.

  13. You know what’s interesting is that the more I get into the series the less I feel like I’m reading it for the mystery aspects… I just love the character. I can’t remember if I had figured out whodunit but I was just so touched by the personal stuff that was going on with Maisie. That’s probably why I felt this book was better than the previous Maisie Dobbs book.

  14. Pingback: So Brave, Young, and Handsome « Shelf Love

  15. Oh Dorothy, The Road was amazing on audio. I cried and cried. I did “read” it on a long trip, which helped. I’m not sure I could have handled 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there. Four hours at a stretch worked great. I think you’re right about going for lighter fiction on audio. I find that memoirs work well too.

    If ayone’s interested, I’ve collected some of my thoughts on what’s worked for me at http://shelflove.wordpress.com/2008/07/12/so-brave-young-and-handsome

  16. Katherine — I do wonder what I would have thought if I’d read the first few books rather than listening to them …

    Iliana — I love the character too! I’m very curious about where Winspear is taking her.

    Teresa — thanks for the link!

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