Books Are Pretty

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Incomplete Revenge.

Quick! Close your eyes and tell me the title of this book!

Did you remember it?

If so, you did better than I did at that little test, because I absolutely could not remember the title of this book. At one point, I closed the book to check the title on the cover, opened the book back up, and realized I'd forgotten it already.

I kept calling it An Inconvenient Truth, An Impossible Act, An Indescribable Something, An Unstoppable Force, An Immovable Object, anything but the actual title.

The completely forgettable title is the harshest criticism I have of it, and that's really not that bad, except that if you go to Barnes & Noble to buy it and can only tell the clerk that it's a mystery and there's a woman wearing a hat on the cover, then said clerk has the right to hit you over the head with it when he finds it.*

At the moment, my eight-year-old and I are beginning Book 6 of the Harry Potter series. Obviously, we have just finished my favorite Harry Potter book, book five: Harry Potter and the War on Bureaucracy. I have sometimes wondered how well the book would hold up if I was a space alien and had never heard of the series, and was given book five by Condaleeza Rice when I visited the White House to inform the administration of my imminent takeover. Would I be able to pick up the story and enjoy it for what it is, without any knowledge of the backstory and character relationships that have built up so far? Is it just a good story in and of itself? I think so, but it's really impossible for me to know for sure.

An Insurmountable Obstacle is book five of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. I've never heard of the books, don't know the backstory, and had to figure out the characters' relationships to each other on my own, and I have to say it held up pretty well. It's obvious where the broken threads are, characters whose previous relationships may have made their interactions more moving to me had I known them better, most notably a death that I assume would have had me all teary-eyed had I known the guy at all, but even without the knowledge of those relationships anchoring me firmly into Maisie's world of post World War I England, I still found it a pleasant, if slightly predictable, read.

Private investigator Maisie Dobbs, former downstairs resident turned almost-upstairs girl, is hired by James Compton, son of her former noble employers, Lord Julian and Lady Rowan Compton, to look into some accidents at a brick factory in rural Heronsdene that Compton's company wants to purchase. Of course, the simple straightforward investigation becomes more complicated, because, you know, it's a book, and Maisie and her assistant Billy find that the accidents, a series of fires that occur every year during hop-picking season as well as the theft of some silver at the manor estate, are impossible to investigate because the entire town seems to be keeping some massive secret and nobody's talking.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, and author Jacqueline Winspear pays as much attention to the details of the region and time period as she does to the plot points. This paints a rich backdrop against which Winspear can run the threads of the plot along, starting them at separate points, then slowly weaving them together the way mysteries do.

Maisie Dobbs' style is very much like that of Frances MacDormand's wonderful Marge Gunderson in Fargo. No fancy car chases, no hail of gunfire, just solid police work and a little luck. While An Impossible Dream isn't going to tingle any spines, the pages do start turning more quickly toward the end as all the pieces begin falling into place.

Even though I figured out two of the mysteries, there were still enough questions up in the air to keep it interesting. Mystery fans could do far worse than to settle down with a book in Maisie Dobbs series, if An Incontinentia Buttocks is any indicator.


*That being said, most bookstore clerks are incredibly good at figuring out which book you're looking for when given marginal information. I have had a clerk at Women & Children First find a copy of World War Z when I told her I was looking for a science fiction book that was reviewed in last week's Reader (it was a zombie book, featured in Time Out Chicago) and a Borders clerk who found The World Without Us by my description of "that book on The Daily Show about what would happen to the world if everybody disappeared." He had not seen that episode of The Daily Show, but found the book anyway. Kudos to your hardworking neighborhood bookstore clerk!


An Incomplete Revenge
by Jacqueline Winspear
February, 2008 by Henry Holt & Co
Paperback, 320pp
ISBN: 0805082158

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