Book Review: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear

Posted June 29, 2018 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book Review: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear
Genres: Historical, British, Private Investigator, Mystery
Published by Harper on March 27, 2018
Pages: 326
Format: Hardcover
Source: the library

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Also by this author: A Lesson in Secrets, The Mapping of Love and Death, Journey to Munich, In This Grave Hour, The American Agent

Fourteenth in the Maisie Dobbs, private investigator–historical mystery series now at the start of World War II in England and revolving around Maisie and the people who surround her.

My Take

I can’t help but love Maisie Dobbs. Every time I read her story, I’m so impressed with her rise from her poor beginnings, simply because she wanted to learn and of her compassion for others. Yes, yes, I know this is fiction, but fiction can motivate us into believing a dream, and that’s not a bad thing.

As Maisie remembers an old aphorism: “Where there’s muck, there’s brass”, a comment about how war enriches the coffers of some and pushes others to ignore safety issues. The horror that kills so many, so needlessly. There’s also a somewhat brighter side, of men, women, boys, who are willing to step up and help. Winspear pulls in the evacuation of Dunkirk, although I think she could have, should have?, created more tension for that aspect of the story.

There’s also the pride and fear of those left behind, especially when the last war is still so close in their memories. Maisie does pull from the personal for what tension there is about Dunkirk in particular, what with Priscilla’s and Billy’s horrible experiences during World War I, as they worry about loved ones caught up in the evacuation. Other side themes include Maisie’s worries about Anna and how accepted she is in both households; the benevolent spy is quite minor; and, those emotional effects of war and how it increases everyone’s concerns for and thoughts of family.

It’s that prologue that starts the main theme, and it hung with me, every word. A beautiful description of a worried lad who won’t be coming home, and the only time we’re not hearing from Maisie’s third person simple subjective point-of-view. Maisie also pushes lots of good advice about acceptance and acknowledgement of the dreams of others. She does seem to be more accepting of James’ choices in life.

I know it’s not only wartime when parents become worried about their children, but it does increase the worries, and Winspear has quite a few examples of those worries, which make quite a bit of sense — on the sides of both parent and child. It’s a child’s maturation and their need for independence that is multiplied when it comes to war. Of wanting to be seen as a man equal to others.

Winspear is smooth and keeps the tension low, but it’s there. Oh, yeah. It’s there. I’m wondering if she has had training as a psychologist, as she’s so great at describing feelings and using a person’s posture to measure their concerns. Wait’ll you read her description of Mrs. Digby. Almost made me want to get outside and breathe in some clear air!

There was an interesting bit about currency and the effects wartime has on it. That point about money under the bed certainly made me sit up. Winspear also explains why Britain had to ration everything during the war. I’m sure I’ve heard the reasons before, but for some reason, Winspear’s explanation struck me. And it makes such sense. *Laughing*, I finally learn why the Flying Squad was nicknamed the Sweeney Todd, *more laughing*.

It’s a different perspective on the war, and its effect on the English. I do look forward to the next Maisie Dobbs to see how that changes. For this is another reason I love this series, Winspear stays so true to the times, the clothing, the mores and customs, the everyday life, and the leading technology of the day — those fridges that are a new introduction to the English lifestyle. It makes me appreciate what we have today and marvel at the possibilities of tomorrow. Throughout there are references to apprentices, when children are considered old enough to work, being a man at 16. It’s quite the reverse of how we see today’s middle teens. And it seems that Maisie is getting on a bit, not noticing those little things that Billy and Sands are noticing.

And dang it. What is it with foreshadowing that you never know until afterwards!

The Story

When a neighbor’s son goes missing, especially after his complaints, his father asks Maisie to look in on him. Make sure he’s okay.

It becomes an investigation that goes so much deeper, uncovering fraud, shady plots, murder, spies.

And Maisie is worried what the Ministry of Health inspector will think of Maisie’s application.

The Characters

Maisie Dobbs trained as a psychologist and investigator under Dr Maurice Blanche. Since then, she married James Compton, Viscount Compton, and became widowed. She continues to run her investigative agency and consults with Scotland Yard, Special Branch, and MI5. Brenda was the former housekeeper who married Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father. And he disapproves of Maisie’s growing attachment to Anna.

Lord Julian and Lady Rowena Compton are Maisie’s in-laws. Lord Julian has lots of connections in government and on the boards of a number of business, including banking. He’ll be elected leader of the Local Defense Volunteers unit, later known as the Home Guard. Simmonds is the butler. They have Canadian officers billeted in their house.

Anna is the little girl, a sensitive, from In This Grave Hour, 13, who was evacuated to the Dower House, Maisie’s home in the country and on the Compton estate, Chelstone Manor, near Tunbridge Wells. Dr Stringer is caring for Anna who’s come down with the measles. Emma, a giant Alastian, is attached to Anna while Jook, as much as he loves Frankie, spends a lot of time with Anna. Lady is Anna’s white pony. Supposedly, Marco, a seaman from Malta, is Anna’s father.

Billy Beale has suffered his share of problems as a veteran of WWI and volunteers as an ARP man for this war. He’s been Maisie’s assistant for some years now. His oldest son, Billy, is with the British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk. Sixteen-year-old Bobby, their second son, is an apprentice mechanic with his own ideas. Mrs. Relf is a London neighbor. Arthur Beale is Billy’s cousin who never came home from World War I. Sandra is Maisie’s part-time secretary. She’s married to Lawrence Pickering, a publisher at Pickering Publishing Company, and they have a baby son, Martin.

Priscilla Partridge is a close friend from their university days who soaks her depression in alcohol; she’s married to Douglas Partridge, a writer who works with the wartime Ministry of Information. Timothy, the oldest, has enlisted in the RAF. Tom can’t wait to enlist. Tarquin is the youngest. Elinor is/was the boys’ nanny, so beloved that the family insists she stay on, as family. She’s joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, but Maisie is doubting it.

Gordon Sanderson is Tom’s friend whose dad has a small fleet, including the Cassandra, at Rye. Bea Sanderson is his mother. Mick Tate is a fisherman in Rye. Mistress Molly is the saving of the Cassandra.

Phil and Sally Coombes run the Prince of Wales pub, one of Maisie’s neighbors of her business office. Archie is their oldest at twenty-one; he’s living on his own and is a foreman and fitter for an engineering works with too much money to account for. Vivian is the middle child who works at the telephone exchange. Their youngest, fifteen-year-old Joe, is lucky to have this painting job, as it’s a reserved occupation.

Scotland Yard, Special Branch, etc.
Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell is with Scotland Yard and has come to respect Maisie. Caldwell’s assistant, Francis Able, enlisted as Able Seaman Able; Able’s dad is a desk sergeant in Essex. Detective Chief Inspector “Spud” Murphy in Basingstoke is no fool. Dr Clarissa Clark is the pathologist, who isn’t a fool either. Nor especially humble, lol. Seems Dr Blanche was her favorite professor. Richard Stratton is back with Special Branch doing war work. Robert “Robbie” McFarlane is a liaison between Special Branch and the Secret Service; his eighteen-year-old nephew, Sandy, is at Dunkirk. Stratton used to see Maisie. Constable Sheering is with the Rye PD. Harry Bream is with the Flying Squad

Duff Cooper seems to be a colleague of Douglas’. He’s coordinating the release of information about the evacuation of the BFE from the beach at Dunkirk.

Yates and Sons are…
…a painting and decorating firm that got a lucrative government contract. Bill Yates is the father; Mike is the son who pushes (and gets) good contracts. Freddie Mayes is the foreman on Joe’s painting team; Len is the bigger of the painters; and, Sidney Spooner is a driver with a previous as long as his arm. Charlotte Bright can’t wait to leave her job working for that nasty Mike and join the ATS. Her father is a sergeant at the Carter Street police station.

Jimmy Robertson is a criminal with his fingers in a lot of pies. Barney Coleman had been one of his “tea boys”, Jimmy’s cousin, and now holding up the Rotherhithe Docks. Doris and Sally are his sisters.

Whitchurch, Hampshire, is…
…at the center of the action and where Doreen and Margaret Rose (Billy Beale’s wife and daughter) are staying with Aunt Millicent in one of the tied cottages on Keep’s farm. Mrs. Keep runs a B&B.

The last place Joe lodged was…
…near Whitchurch. Mrs. Digby is the landlady who thinks quite a lot of herself…and that Sid Watkins with his eyes and hands. Leading Aircraftswoman Sylvia Preston, a WAAF, is one of the lodgers with a conscience, and it applies to her current job as a driver as well!

Phineas “Finny” Hutchins owns Moorwood Farm over in Whitchurch and became very friendly with Joe. He raises sheepdogs, including Odin and Loki with Freya as the mum. Magni is the name Joe chose for his pup. Joseph Hutchins was the son who died at 19 in World War I.

Airfields in Hampshire
Captain Michaels is at Andover. Hurstbourne Tarrant is a decoy. Flight Lieutenant Cobb and Sergeant Packham are at the same airfield as Corporal Teddy Wickham, who is Archie’s best friend, and whom the Coombes family has known forever.

Dr Andrew Dene (Pardonable Lies, 3) is now a renowned orthopedic surgeon at the hospital in Hastings and a professor of orthopedic medicine in London. Maisie once dated him, and now they’re friends. He’s married with children. Walter Miles is a new tenant at Maisie’s office building. And he has the most marvelous green thumb. Well, he is a botanist and lectures over at Bedford College.

Jack Barker is still selling papers outside Maisie’s office. His grandson, Peter, is now in the army. Jim Turner owns Turner’s Farm and has his evacuees slaving away on his farm. Peter Sands is Billy’s painting and decorating friend who keeps Maisie and company supplied with wallpaper ends. Mr Roache runs the special ambulance driver practice that Maisie and Priscilla are supposed to be attending. Bernard Klein is Maisie’s lawyer; Anthony is his clerk. Dr Elsbeth Masters is the psychiatrist Doreen has seen in the past.

The Cover and Title

The cover is the expected woodcut style (I do love it) with Maisie standing in the shadow of a plane’s wing in a silhouetted profile, her back to us, and wearing a trim and neatly fitted suit and a cloche. She’s holding some papers to her chest tightly as she watches a pilot clamber into his military plane on a grassy lawn. The background is a beautiful late spring sky with big billowing clouds rising up from the ground and another plane high in the sky. Text begins with an info blurb in yellow at the very top with the author’s name below that in a deep orange and a much smaller title in yellow below that. The series information (thank you!) is black and centered in a cloud.

I’m wondering if the title is about everyone, for war causes those involved, with family and friends endangered, to die in their hearts for every loss. What wouldn’t they give To Die But Once.

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