Thursday, March 1, 2012

WW I Nurse Smackdown: Maisie or Bess?

Jacqueline Winspear writes an excellent series about former WW I nurse Maisie Dobbs, now (that is, 1929, when the first book takes place) a "Psychologist and Investigator," according to her business card. The first novel in the series, Maisie Dobbs, begins with her current investigation, then flashes back for the middle third to give Maisie's life story, before wrapping up the mystery with a nifty surprise ending. The daughter of a groom, Maisie was in service in a great house. She was given a chance at education by her employer and became the protegee of an eccentric genius, Dr. Maurice Blanche. The ninth book in the series, Elegy for Eddie, will be published in March.

Bess Crawford is the heroine of a relatively new series by Charles Todd, the mother-son authors of the Inspector Rutledge series mentioned in my last post. The three books in the series so far are A Duty to the Dead, An Impartial Witness, and A Bitter Truth. A new Bess Crawford novel, An Unmarked Grave, is due in June. Although born upper class and following in her father's tradition of service to King and country, Bess is a thoroughly modern woman who travels independently between France and England, rooming with a number of other nurses in London whenever on leave. The Bess Crawford books are the only WW  I  mysteries I know that actually take place during and in the war, with scenes set in France, in hospitals at the front. So far, however, the mysteries themselves mostly take place in England while Bess is on leave. [If you are not already a Bess Crawford reader (or even if you are), consider joining an online "Bess Crawford Read Along" at the Book Club Girl site, beginning now.]

So who wins the WW I Sleuthing Nurse Award -- Maisie or Bess? Who's your favorite WW I nurse? Please comment. Or nominate your own favorite sleuthing nurse. (Cherry Ames, anyone?)

I'm going to cheat, and divide this into two categories. As mysteries, I like the Maisie Dobbs series better, both for plot and for the overall reading experience. But for a best friend? I'd choose Bess Crawford in a nano-second.

Let's face it, Maisie Dobbs is an odd duck and a cold fish. She's so annoyingly New Age-y, always conscious of her breathing and her body language. And what exactly did she learn from Maurice, other than to pay attention to her feelings? (Use the force, Luke. Stretch out with your feelings.) To Winspear's credit, some of the elements that seem most anomalous are based on solid research. My favorite example is the time that Maurice recommended that a wounded vet try Pilates exercises, which, come to find out, were designed by a WW I P.O.W. Similarly, most of the metaphysical and even supernatural elements of the stories are rooted in the Twenties, the pre-eminent decade of spiritualism and psychoanalysis.

Nevertheless, Maisie is way too restrained and judicious to be much fun as a dinner companion. I'd much prefer her best friend Phyllis, superficially so frivolous and gossipy, but solid as a rock underneath. Some of this has to be written off to class differences, of course. This is actually another of Winspear's strengths -- the wondefully nuanced way she shows us the dilemmas of a working-class woman who is changing her status, in fact pioneering in the brave new world of professional working women. Maisie's relationships with Billie, her assistant, and her ex-employer, Lady Compton -- even her relationship with her own father, Lady Compton's groom -- are loaded with class-related complications. On the other hand, I often feel that if Maisie weren't such a bossy know-it-all, she wouldn't have a lot of these complications.  At least, she is a professional investigator, which gives her a legitimate outlet for her busybody tendencies. It also makes the mysteries so much more straightforward.

Which brings us to the chief weakness of the Bess Crawford mysteries: the (un)willing suspension of disbelief. In the first book, I was willing to believe that a WW I nurse would go to great lengths to deliver the dying message of a soldier, and to get involved when that message seemed to fall on deaf ears. By the third book, however, I wanted to scream (like Sassy Gay Friend), "What, what, what are you DOING?" Why do you even care about these people and (especially) why are you still a guest in their home?

The good news is that Todd writes sharp, suspenseful disaster sequences (including the brilliant opening sequence of the first book, A Duty to the Dead), which serves this series well. The bad news is that the mysteries all have to be solved mostly in England, mostly on leave -- which seems to happen often and/or be extended indefinitely, and that adds to the disbelief.

As a friend, however, I think Bess would be a gem. Although born an aristocrat, she seems thoroughly modern and open-minded. Bess shares rooms in London with a number of other nurses, who are almost never on leave at the same time, but if they were, you feel they could have jolly times together. Bess is brave, impetuous and even flirtatious, almost Maisie's opposite. Of course, she's backed up solidly by Mom and Dad -- and her father's right-hand man, who is always available as chauffeur, bodyguard, and surrogate big brother. Bess may be modern, but her life is not the process of self-invention that Maisie's is.

So, who do you like better and why? Please comment (or I will be sad).


  1. Nan - I don't know Bess, but I must meet her! I only know Maisie and I find her to be pretty good company most of the time...I think she puts others at ease and I like that in a person.

    I'll be back with more thoughts when I have read some more!

    1. Hey, Brenda -- I'm so glad you commented! I know I'm overstating the case about Maisie, but I always feel more like I'm with my therapist than with a friend. I expect her to ask, "And how do you feel about that?" Can't wait for you to meet Bess as well.

    2. And there might be another nurse to meet - she is a 1950s English nurse named Coral Glynn - the title of a new novel by Peter Cameron. I haven't read it, but I have read a few of Peter's other novels and he is a fine writer with a keen eye...I just heard a review of Coral Glynn and it is supposed to be very good with a few twists later in the story. Just coincidentally, I know Peter's mother, as our dogs play together in the summer on Eastham Beaches!

  2. Hey, cool! I know Peter Cameron's writing from my bookstore days, so I immediately looked up "Coral Glynn" on One reader said, "What a captivating little old-fashioned soap opera of a book!" Sounds fabulous!

  3. I can't compare, not having read Bess, but I love Maisie completely. Maybe it has to do with being a private individual myself. I think Winspear has written her ideal woman, and that includes Maisie's continual endeavors to improve.

    1. Hi, Joy. Welcome! Thanks for commenting. I guess I'm not a very private individual, more or less letting it all hang out on this blog as I do -- so I probably don't understand Maisie as well as I might. I do admire her efforts to improve, though. And I'm glad to discover Calderwood Books. (Readers, click on Joy's name to find her excellent Website.) Now I wish I were an e-reader.