To Die But Once
Long series and I are not friends. I tend to prefer story arcs that have a definite end because I’ve found that most which don’t wind up having a great beginning but increasingly weak novels as the series continues into infinity. Some writers rise above that though and Jacqueline Winspear is one of them. While a few of her recent books have had some stumbles, her Maisie Dobbs series once more hits its stride with book number fourteen, To Die but Once. Technically, you don’t have to read the other books to enjoy this one, since the mystery stands on its own. However, I would strongly recommend it,. as otherwise you will lack back story on the characters and their detailed history.
Maisie is on her way into the office when she walks past a neighbor on the road. His drooping shoulders and awkward gait signal to her that something is off, but before she has a chance to ask him about it, she is distracted by running into Billy, her co-worker/employee. She pushes the neighbor to the back of her mind, but he doesn’t stay there long. She and Billy have barely opened their place of business before Mr. Phil Coombes, the previously discussed neighbor, comes calling. His youngest son Joe recently accepted a traveling position painting buildings for the air force. It’s a good job, not only providing a nice wage but also guaranteeing that he won’t be called-up to fight in the ongoing war. But lately, Joe has been complaining of headaches and failing to make scheduled calls home. Mr. Coombes is sure he is being overly anxious, but he figures Maisie’s private investigative firm could check into Joe’s whereabouts and reassure him that Joe is doing well. He would check into it himself but isn’t certain where, exactly, Joe is working and even if he were, he has no car to take him there and can’t leave his job to go looking.
Maisie happily agrees to take on the case but from the start, she is more worried than even Mr. Coombes. She has watched young Joe grow up and knows him to be a sensitive boy, close to his family and unlikely to cause them worry without reason. Her precognitive instincts, stronger than regular intuition, are warning her that there is more to this case than a young boy failing to call home. She quickly discovers she is right – Joe seems to have disappeared into thin air. Compounding the problem, the company Joe works for is reticent about sharing information with her and seems to have trouble locating their painting teams. The air force proves less than cooperative when it comes to discussing issues about their civilian contractors with a private investigator and witnesses seem coy or scared.
Adding to all the stress is the fact that the war is, after months of quiet, heating up. British troops are trapped in France and if England can’t find a way to get them home, the British people may find themselves fighting for their homeland in their own streets. Young men Maisie loves, namely Billy’s son and her best friend Priscilla’s eldest, are involved with the fighting.
As everything comes to a head – with civilian boats rescuing men from Dunkirk and her own investigation coming to a conclusion – Maisie confirms something she has always known. Some men will do anything to protect their country. And others will do anything to profit from their sacrifices.
Fans familiar with the series will recognize the pattern this story takes immediately. Maisie and Billy question witnesses, make intuitive leaps, study paperwork and work slowly but surely towards a resolution of their case. In the background, the minutiae of their lives plays out: Maisie grows closer to resolving young Anna’s residency issues; Billy tries to offer his two sons, both of whom are of an age to fight in the war, solid advice; Patricia, who lost all of her brothers in the last war, tries to weather this one while worrying about the fact that she has one son actively fighting and another anxious to do so. We see England in the weeks leading to the Dunkirk boat rescue, its inhabitants worrying for their men in France and for their own fragile safety at home.
In many ways, this is a perfect Maisie Dobbs mystery. The crime is interesting and complicated, and the lives of everyone in the tale form a pleasant and compelling backdrop to the story being told. The prose is strong, the characterization solid. The reason that I haven’t awarded an A grade is quite simply because the author has jumped through hoops in several of the previous novels to ensure that Maisie’s life stays frozen in place. In most long running series, the characters are forced to change. They fall in love and have to juggle their relationship with their obsessive sleuthing; perhaps they have young children whom they need to care for or an elderly relative who suddenly requires attention – something normally comes up to change the pattern of even the most stoic and mundane of human lives. But this author created a three book arc that ensured that ‘something’ landed Maisie right back where she started. Which means that this book, while good, reflects a lack of growth in the writing and characters that keeps it from a DIK rating.
Which doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend To Die but Once. I do. It’s a great WWII mystery and should definitely be read by anyone who has enjoyed the other novels. Those unfamiliar with this set of stories should assuredly pick up Maisie Dobbs (book one) – and fans of historical mysteries will find many satisfying hours of reading by doing so.