Maisie Dobbs is trying not to let World War II get her down.
The efficient private detective of Jacqueline Winspear's almost-annual series is back for her 16th outing, having taken off 2020 so Winspear could publish a memoir, "This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing."
Beginning with "Maisie Dobbs," largely set in 1929 but with flashbacks to before World War I, the novels have followed Maisie through a series of murder-solving triumphs and personal heartaches, including the deaths of three-fourths of the important men in her life (have a care for the fourth; her elderly father is barely around in the new book).
In 1941, when "Consequences" is set, Maisie's private inquiries compete for time with her work for the British government, helping determine which volunteers are spy material. Both halves of her professional life come together when a lad named Freddie comes to her, having witnessed a murder near one of the ruined buildings left behind by the Blitz. That's gripping stuff and, as always, Winspear finesses the thriller elements without losing sight of the character stuff that readers probably care about most: Even as Maisie is puzzling over the murder, she's also finding a safe place for the boy and his loved ones, who are being hunted by the killer and by Freddie's violent father.
Where Winspear isn't as successful is in integrating the bucolic life that dominated a couple of previous novels in the series. Maisie's country estate is a train ride away from her London offices but she doesn't get to the country much in "Consequences," which is especially odd since she now has a daughter stashed there, a daughter who seems to have been adopted under false pretenses by a single mom who is too busy ending World War II to care for her.
It feels like Winspear is building up to a turning point. She has had to make compromises in order to get this far with the story — for instance, once-impoverished Maisie inherited that estate (and a title) and now has endless money to throw at anything that gets in her way — which has the effect of lowering the books' stakes. And detective work, a lifeline for Maisie when she emerged from the World War I years a broken woman, no longer seems to satisfy our heroine.
Winspear still offers entertaining insight into midcentury detective work (Maisie capably demonstrates how to search a bomb site and another scene outlines how to respond to an air-raid warning). But the problem with Maisie, increasingly, is that she doesn't have problems unless you count "Everyone loves me and wants me to help them solve crimes and I have more money and love than I know what to do with" as a problem.
Winspear has gotten Maisie out of and into plenty of jams before so I don't doubt that she's working on compelling new dilemmas, and no one will blame her for granting tragedy-plagued Maisie a novel or two of perfect bliss. But "Consequences" feels like a transitional story, one to keep us satisfied until the novelist trains her protagonist on an entirely new set of consequences and fears.
Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune critic. • 612-673-4367
The Consequences of Fear
By: Jacqueline Winspear.
Publisher: Harper, 340 pages, $27.99.