Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Series: Maisie Dobbs #14
Published by Harper on March 27th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
Spring 1940. With Britons facing what has become known as "the Bore War"—nothing much seems to have happened yet—Maisie Dobbs is asked to investigate the disappearance of a local lad, a young apprentice craftsman working on a "hush-hush" government contract. As Maisie’s inquiry reveals a possible link to the London underworld, another mother is worried about a missing son—but this time the boy in question is one beloved by Maisie.
In the earlier books in this series, Maisie reminded me a lot of Bess Crawford, from Charles Todd’s series, or even Mary Russell from Laurie R. King’s Holmes/Russell series. Bess, Mary and Maisie are all contemporaries, and had similar experiences.
But Maisie’s series has moved on, from World War I through the between-the-wars period and now she has reached World War II. And now Maisie, 20 years older and hopefully wiser than she was in her earlier cases, reminds me all too much of Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War.
While the scenario behind To Die But Once is straight from the movies. One movie in particular, Dunkirk.
The movie was set on the beaches as the men waited desperately for rescue. To Die But Once takes place on the other side of the Channel, on the home front, where Maisie’s friends, and therefore Maisie herself, worry about their hostages to a fortune that they desperately hoped never to see again in their lifetimes. A hope that has been miserably dashed on the rocky shore at Dunkirk.
As with Foyle’s War, while the background of war is ever present, the story revolves around events on the home front. Just because there’s a war on, even if in 1940 it was the “Bore War”, does not mean that human beings have refrained from their usual patterns of crime if not punishment.
The impending war merely provides yet more opportunities for nefarious activity, unfortunately not limited to graft, cheating on government contracts, selling secrets, and that age-old wartime pastime, the black market.
War makes very strange bedfellows, especially when there’s money to be made.
Maisie begins by investigating the disappearance of a young man. She, as well as the entire neighborhood, watched Joe Coombes grow up in his family’s pub. He’s a sweet young man, and at 16 he’s away from home for the first time, apprentice to a painter’s crew doing government work at RAF bases all over Britain.
While Maisie hopes to discover a boy out on a lark, she is prepared for what she does find – Joe’s unidentified body in a morgue. For Maisie, that is never the end of a case – only the beginning.
Maisie isn’t satisfied with the coroner’s ruling of death by misadventure. It is possible that this was the case – but it just doesn’t feel likely. And the more that Maisie looks into Joe’s life, the less likely it seems.
All she has to do is find the one thread to pull that will unravel this case – if the mysterious gentlemen in the black sedan don’t unravel her first.
Escape Rating A: This series is, from beginning to end, marvelous. It is a comfort read for me, having now read the first four books and the last five. I plan to meet myself in the middle sometime soon.
But this is a dense series. While the case in each book is generally singular, or at least all the cases that Maisie turns up are all completed within the volume, each entry requires at least some previous knowledge of Maisie’s background, her professional history, and an acquaintance with Maisie’s friends and associates.
In other words, don’t start here. Particularly as the series has been building towards the war for several books, since A Dangerous Place, if not before. Maisie’s adventures begin in the first book in the series, named for its protagonist, Maisie Dobbs.
Maisie is both a thorough and a thoughtful detective. She is also, as she describes her associate Billy Beale, a terrier. Once she has a case between her teeth, she doesn’t let it go until she has poked her nose into every single one of its dark alleys.
That’s certainly the case here. Joe is dead, but his death was caused as much by the tentacles of corruption that surround his family as it was by the sharp blow to the head that snuffed out his life. And Maisie uncovers a net that reaches from a small-time contractor to a big-time hoodlum to the halls of power and everywhere in between.
The case is twisting and convoluted, and keeps both Maisie and the reader captivated as she follows its turns to the very end.
There is so much going on here, with Maisie, with the case, and with the war. Maisie is often pushed to her limit, and in more than one direction. In the end, it is her willingness to confront the difficult, and her ability to see inside the human heart, that provides the answers – even if those are answers that no one wants to hear.
The Maisie Dobbs series is one of my favorite historical mystery series. I enjoy every entry, to the point where it is difficult to review the book. When I read Maisie, it feels like I am there. And I can’t wait to travel with her again. Even into war.