Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Series #1)

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Overview

Hailed by NPR’s Fresh Air as part Testament of Youth, part Dorothy Sayers, and part Upstairs, Downstairs, this astonishing debut has already won fans from coast to coast and is poised to add Maisie Dobbs to the ranks of literature’s favorite sleuths.

Maisie Dobbs isn’t just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a ...

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Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Series #1)

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Overview

Hailed by NPR’s Fresh Air as part Testament of Youth, part Dorothy Sayers, and part Upstairs, Downstairs, this astonishing debut has already won fans from coast to coast and is poised to add Maisie Dobbs to the ranks of literature’s favorite sleuths.

Maisie Dobbs isn’t just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a nurse. It is there that she learns that coincidences are meaningful and the truth elusive. After the War, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] deft debut novel... Romantic readers sensing a story-within-a-story won’t be disappointed. But first they must be prepared to be astonished at the sensitivity and wisdom with which Maisie resolves her first professional assignment." —The New York Times

"The reader familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency... might think of Maisie Dobbs as its British counterpart.... Winspear, who intends to write a series featuring Maisie Dobbs, has created a winning character about whom readers will want to read more." —The Associated Press

"[Maisie Dobbs] catches the sorrow of a lost generation in the character of one exceptional woman." —The Chicago Tribune

The New York Times
… when Maisie's investigation into a convalescent home for such men sends her back in time to her experiences as a battlefield nurse, she must face her own nightmares. Winspear takes her through her ordeal with great compassion -- and the promise of brighter days ahead. — Marilyn Stasio
Publishers Weekly
In Winspear's inspired debut novel, a delightful mix of mystery, war story and romance set in WWI-era England, humble housemaid Maisie Dobbs climbs convincingly up Britain's social ladder, becoming in turn a university student, a wartime nurse and ultimately a private investigator. Both na ve and savvy, Maisie remains loyal to her working-class father and many friends who help her along the way. Her first sleuthing case, which begins as a simple marital infidelity investigation, leads to a trail of war-wounded soldiers lured to a remote convalescent home in Kent from which no one seems to emerge alive. The Retreat, specializing in treating badly deformed battlefield casualties, is run by an apparently innocuous former officer who requires his patients to sign over their assets to his tightly run institution. At different points in her remarkable career, Maisie crosses paths with a military surgeon to whom she's attracted despite his disfigurement from a bomb blast at the front. A refreshing heroine, appealing secondary characters and an absorbing plot, marred only by a somewhat bizarre conclusion, make Winspear a new writer to watch. Agent, Amy Rennert. (July 9) Forecast: Blurbs from Elizabeth George and Charles Todd will alert their readers to the quality of this book, which ought to draw mainstream and romance readers as well. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From its dedication to the author's paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, who were both injured during World War I, to its powerful conclusion, this is a poignant and compelling story that explores war's lingering and insidious impact on its survivors. The book opens in spring 1929 as Maisie Dobbs opens an office dedicated to "discreet investigations" and traverses back and forth between her present case and the long shadows cast by World War I. What starts out as a plea by an anxious husband for Maisie to discover why his wife regularly lies about her whereabouts turns into a journey of discovery whose answers and indeed whose very questions lie in a quiet rural cemetery where many war dead are buried. In Maisie, Winspear has created a complex new investigator who, tutored by the wise Maurice Blanche, recognizes that in uncovering the actions of the body, she is accepting responsibility for the soul. British-born but now living in America, first novelist Winspear writes in simple, effective prose, capturing the post-World War I era effectively and handling human drama with compassionate sensitivity while skillfully avoiding cloying sentimentality. At the end, the reader is left yearning for more discreet investigations into the nature of what it means to feel truth. Highly recommended.-Caroline Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Maisie is 14 when her mother dies, and she must go into service to help her father make ends meet. Her prodigious intellect and the fact that she is sneaking into the manor library at night to read Hume, Kierkegaard, and Jung alert Lady Rowan to the fact that she has an unusual maid. She arranges for Maisie to be tutored, and the girl ultimately qualifies for Cambridge. She goes for a year, only to be drawn by the need for nurses during the Great War. After serving a grueling few years in France and falling in love with a young doctor, Maisie puts up a shingle in 1929 as a private investigator. She is a perceptive observer of human nature, works well with all classes, and understands the motivations and demons prevalent in postwar England. Teens will be drawn in by her first big case, seemingly a simple one of infidelity, but leading to a complex examination of an almost cultlike situation. The impact of the war on the country is vividly conveyed. A strong protagonist and a lively sense of time and place carry readers along, and the details lead to further thought and understanding about the futility and horror of war, as well as a desire to hear more of Maisie. This is the beginning of a series, and a propitious one at that.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A romance/investigation debut novel set firmly in the spiritual aftermath of WWI. Maisie Dobbs, recently turned private investigator in 1929 England, had been a nurse back during the war to end all wars, so she knows about wounds-both those to the body and those to the soul. It's just a month after she sets up shop that she gets her first interesting case: What initially looks like just another infidelity matter turns out to be a woman's preoccupation with a dead man, Vincent Weathershaw, in a graveyard. Flashback to Maisie's upbringing: her transition from servant class to the intellectual class when she shows interest in the works of Hume, Kierkegaard, and Jung. She doesn't really get to explore her girlhood until she makes some roughshod friends in the all-woman ambulance corps that serves in France, and she of course falls for a soldier, Simon, who writes her letters but then disappears. Now, in 1929, Maisie's investigation into Vincent Weathershaw leads her to the mysterious Retreat, run like a mix between a barracks and a monastery, where soldiers still traumatized by the war go to recover. Maisie knows that her curiosity just might get her into trouble-yet she trusts her instincts and sends an undercover assistant into the Retreat in the hopes of finding out more about Vincent. But what will happen, she worries, if one needs to retreat from the Retreat? Will she discover the mystery behind her client's wife's preoccupation with a man who spent time there? And by any chance, albeit slight, might she encounter that old lover who disappeared back in 1917 and who she worried might be dead? Winspear rarely attempts to elevate her prose past the common romance, and what might have been ajourney through a strata of England between the wars is instead just simple, convenient and contrived. Prime candidate for a TV movie. Agents: Amy Rennert, Randi Murray/Amy Rennert Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142004333
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/25/2004
  • Series: Maisie Dobbs Series , #1
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 163,897
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.75 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in Kent, in the south of England.  In 1990, after a career in publishing in London, she moved to California.

Biography

Lovers of British mysteries and historical novels will find something to appreciate in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books. Maisie, a housemaid-turned-student-turned-nurse-turned private investigator in early 20th-century London, manages to straddle Britain's class system by being a woman of exceptional "bearing" and intellect who happens to come from working-class stock. As an investigator, she's green, but sharp and ambitious. She's also surrounded by vividly sketched secondary players, such as her benefactor, Lady Rowan, and mentor Maurice Blanche.

In Winspear's first Maisie story, we learn the character's background: Forced by family circumstances to go to work as a housemaid at an early age, Maisie Dobbs' curiosity and intellect are noticed by her employer, Lady Rowan. Rowan takes care of her education, and she makes it to university – but the Great War interrupts her ambitions. She serves as a nurse in France, then returns to England and starts her career as a private investigator in 1929. Her first case seems like a simple investigation into infidelity; it grows into something larger when it leads realizes there's something amiss at a convalescent home for war veterans called The Retreat.

Winspear's talent didn't go unnoticed when her first novel was published in July 2003. Maisie Dobbs was named in "best" lists in both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. It was also nominated in the best novel category for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. There was an almost palpable sense of relief in the reviews, pleasant surprise that someone had offered not only a solid addition to the historical mystery genre, but had given it further depth and breadth. As an NPR reviewer put it, "[The book's] intelligent eccentricity offers relief."

Telling Maisie's stories using a warm third-person narrator, Winspear charms with her ability to convey the historical context surrounding her characters, particularly regarding the impact of the Great War. For this reason, and because her mysteries steer clear of graphic violence or sex, her books are often recommended for younger readers also. Far from hardboiled, Winspear's characters are very human, and she delivers a little romance and heartache along with the criminal wrongdoing.

Part of the appeal in Winspear's books also lies in her ability to bring a deeper, more philosophical atmosphere to the proceedings. Maisie is trained in Freudian psychology and is as interested in helping as she is in solving. A case referenced in the second Maisie story, Birds of a Feather, for example, "would not be filed away until those whose lives were touched by her investigation had reached a certain peace with her findings, with themselves, and with one another." Reading Winspear's Dobbs series may not bring inner peace, but there is something relaxing about spending time with her appealing characters.

Good To Know

Winspear also works as a creative coach. She writes on her web site, "As a coach I am engaged by those who want to establish clear intentions for their artistic endeavors, to support and encourage so that they sustain a level of energy and empowerment which is demonstrated in work that is rewarding, inspiring -- and finished!" Winspear also writes about international education.

Winspear loves outdoor pursuits such as horseback riding, hiking, sailing, and mountain biking; she's also an avid traveler, according to her web site bio.

In our interview, Winspear shared some fun facts about herself:

"My first ever job after college was as a flight attendant. I wanted to travel and could not afford it, so I decided to get myself a job where I could travel. I did it for two years and had great fun."

"My worst-ever job was in an egg-packing factory when I was 16."

"I love dogs, horses and generally all animals. I will always stop to check on stray dogs -- I once ended up in the emergency room with a tick embedded in me which had jumped off a dog I had rescued from a busy road. It was a deer tick, which carries Lyme Disease, so I wasn't taking any chances. Funnily enough, when I opened the only magazine in the emergency room, it was to a page carrying an article on tick bites and disease. It stated that you have six hours after the tick embeds itself, before it begins to release the bacteria that cause disease. I counted the hours from rescuing the dog, and by the time the doctor came in I was pleading, ‘Get this thing out of me!!!'"

"My favorite way to unwind is to go for a walk with my husband and the dog at the end of the working day, then we go to our local health club for a swim and to sit by the pool and read for a while. I love time with family and friends, but completely relish time on my own when I have no agenda to follow, no to-do's, just me and time alone."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jackie Winspear
    2. Hometown:
      Ojai, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Weald of Kent, England
    1. Education:
      The University of London’s Institute of Education
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Spring 1929

Even if she hadn't been the last person to walk through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station, Jack Barker would have noticed the tall, slender woman in the navy blue, thigh-length jacket with a matching pleated skirt short enough to reveal a well-turned ankle. She had what his old mother would have called "bearing." A way of walking, with her shoulders back and head held high, as she pulled on her black gloves while managing to hold on to a somewhat battered black document case.

"Old money," muttered Jack to himself. "Stuck-up piece of nonsense."

Jack expected the woman to pass him by, so he stamped his feet in a vain attempt to banish the sharp needles of cold creeping up through his hobnailed boots. He fanned a half dozen copies of the Daily Express over one arm, anticipating a taxi-cab screeching to a halt and a hand reaching out with the requisite coins.

"Oh, stop — may I have an Express please, love?" appealed a voice as smooth as spooned treacle.

The newspaper vendor looked up slowly, straight into the eys the color of midnight in summer, an intense shade that seemed to him to be darker than blue. She held out her money.

"O' course, Miss, 'ere you are. Bit nippy this morning, innit?"

She smiled, and as she took the paper from him before turning to walk away, she replied, "Not half. It's brass monkey weather; better get yourself a nice cuppa before too long."

Jack couldn't have told you why he watched the woman walk all the way down Warren Street toward Fitzroy Square. But he did know one thing: She might have bearing, but from the familiar way she spoke to him, she certainly wasn't from old money.

At the end of Warren Street, Maisie Dobbs stopped in front of the black front door of a somewhat rundown Georgian terraced house, tucked the Daily Express under her left arm, carefully opened her document case, and took out an envelope containing a letter from her landlord and two keys. The letter instructed her to give the outside door a good shove after turning the key in the lock, to light the gas lamp at the base of the stairs carefully, to mind the top step of the first flight of stairs — which needed to be looked at — and to remember to lock her own door before leaving in the evening. The letter also told her that Billy Beale, the caretaker, would put up her nameplate on the outside door if she liked or, it suggested, perhaps she would prefer to remain anonymous.

Maisie grinned. I need the business, she said to herself. I'm not here to remain anonymous. Maisie suspected that Mr. Sharp, the landlord, was unlikely to live up to his name, and that he would pose questions with obvious answers each time they met. However, his directions were apt: The door did indeed need a shove, but the gas lamp, once lit, hardly dented the musky darkness of the stairwell. Clearly there were some things that needed to be changed, but all in good time. For the moment Maisie had work to do, even if she had no actual cases to work on.

Minding the top step, Maisie turned right on the landing and headed straight for the brown painted door on the left, the one with the frosted glass window and a To Let sign hanging from the doorknob. She removed tthe sign, put the key into the lock, opened the door, and took a deep breath before stepping into her new office. It was a single room with a gas fire, a gas lamp on each wall, and one sash window with a view of the building across the street and the rooftops beyond. There was an oak desk with a matching chair of dubious stability, and an old filing cabinet to the right of the window.

Lady Rowan Compton, her patron and former employer, had been correct; Warren Street wasn't a particularly salubrious area. But if she played her cards right, Maisie could afford the rent and have some money left over from the sum she had allowed herself to take from her savings. She didn't want a fancy office, but she didn't want an out-and-out dump either. No, she wanted something in the middle, something for everyone, something central, but then again not in the thick of things. Maisie felt a certain comfort in this small corner of Bloomsbury. They said that you could sit down to tea with just about anyone around Fitzroy Square and dine with a countess and a carpenter at the same table, with both of them at ease in the company. Yes, Warren Street would be good for now. The tricky thing was going to be the nameplate. She still hadn't solved the problem of the nameplate.

As Lady Rowan had asked, "So, my dear, what will you call yourself? I mean, we all know what you do, but what will be your trade name? You can hardly state the obvious. 'Finds missing people, dead or alive, even when it's themselves they are looking for' really doesn't cut the mustard. We have to think of something succinct, something that draws upon your unique talents."

"I was thinking of 'Discreet Investigations,' Lady Rowan. What do you think?"

"But that doesn't tell anyone about how you use your mind, my dear — what you actually do."

"It's not really my mind I'm using, it's other people's. I just ask the questions."

"Poppycock! What about 'Discreet Cerebral Investigations.'?"

Maisie smiled at Lady Rowan, raising an eyebrow in mock dismay at the older woman's suggestion. She was at ease, seated in front of the fireplace in her former employer's library, a fireplace she had once cleaned wiith the raw, housework-roughened hands of a maid in service.

"No, I'm not a brain surgeon. I'm going to think about it for a bit, Lady Rowan. I want to get it right."

The gray-haired aristocrat leaned over and patted Maisie on the knee. "I'm sure that whatever you choose, you will do very well, my dear. Very well indeed."

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

At first glance, Maisie Dobbs's inaugural case as a private investigator looks dreadfully routine: Christopher Davenham, whose wife has been making unexplained weekday excursions from their London home, has employed Maisie to discover whether he is being betrayed. However, Maisie recalls the advice of her enigmatic mentor, Maurice Blanche, that "the extraordinary hides behind the camouflage of the ordinary." Events prove Maurice correct, as the trail of Davenham's wife leads Maisie to a mysterious, carefully guarded home for disabled World War I veterans—and toward a painful confrontation with her own haunting past. Set in England and France in the 1910s and 1920s, Maisie Dobbs steps beyond the conventional confines of a mystery novel by telling the story of a brave, brilliant young woman who rises from her working-class origins to study at Cambridge and earn a place as a respected detective. In addition, with astonishing subtlety and sympathy, the novel relives the heroic struggles and devastating losses of those who strove and suffered in the so-called War to End All Wars.

For her re-creation of England in the early decades of the last century, Jacqueline Winspear has drawn upon the experiences and stories of her own family. She has also surrounded her cool but compassionate heroine with a host of meticulously created supporting characters: Simon Lynch, the idealistic young doctor whose sense of humane duty draws him toward an unimaginable fate; Enid, a red-haired servant-girl whose fiery spirit and romantic dreams risk being crushed by class prejudice; Frankie Dobbs, who yearns for his daughter to rise and flourish but fears losing her to a social and intellectual world he cannot comprehend; and Maurice, who shapes Maisie's growing mind in his own image. Above all, however, Winspear recaptures the character of an age—a time when venerable social hierarchies began to totter, when the innocent optimism of youth gave way to the bitter truths of experience, and when shell-shocked veterans wandered the London streets at night, dimly searching for a repose that had been stolen from them forever.

Maisie lives on these pages not only as a detective, but as a subtle master of psychology whose every word and gesture seem calculated to lead to the revelation of truth. But Maisie herself has tried to bury a portion of her past. As the plot of Winspear's mystery unfolds, so, too, does Maisie's personal history, and we discover that the riddles of the visible world may be surpassed by the enigmas of the mind and of the memory.

ABOUT JACQUELINE WINSPEAR

Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in Kent, in the south of England. In 1990, after a career in publishing in London, she moved to California. Maisie Dobbs is her first novel, and the first in a series featuring the eponymous heroine.

A CONVERSATION WITH JACQUELINE WINSPEAR

You write in your novel's acknowledgments about sharing your home with Maisie Dobbs. Do you feel as if she has acquired a reality for you that goes beyond the printed page?

I'm not sure about a reality that goes beyond the printed page. However, in writing Maisie Dobbs I immersed myself in a research process that encompassed not only the Great War, but the late 1920s. When I wasn't writing, I was reading, watching documentaries, or wading through my notes. I wanted Maisie to be a woman of her time, to reflect a certain strength of spirit that was so present with women who had lived through the war, yet I also wanted her to have a uniqueness—in that respect, she took up a lot of space in our home. I think for a time I began every conversation with, "Maisie..."

The dedication of your novel gives a brief description of two of your grandparents, whose lives helped to inspire your story. Would you be interested in telling us anything more about them?

The interesting thing about many people of that Great War generation—especially those who were directly involved in the conflict—is how little they talked about it. People like my grandparents simply "got on with it" so to speak, and certainly it's that same strength of spirit that served the British so well in World War II. There are stories about my grandparents that I find fascinating, but the war stories in particular didn't reach me as oft-told tales, more as something spoken of with quiet gravity.

John "Jack" Winspear (my name is in honor of his nickname and my brother is also named John) was a costermonger by trade, a man who sold vegetables from a horse-drawn cart or "barrow." In fact, he was considered quite successful because he had several horses—many costermongers had hand-barrows for their rounds. He had talked about some of his wartime experiences to my father, but only when asked—and probably badgered, if truth be told. I know that at one point he was a stretcher-bearer, with the job of going out into no-man's land to retrieve the dead and dying. Two stories are particularly sad: On one occasion he came across the bodies of a British soldier and a German soldier—each had killed the other with a bayonet and their hands were still on their rifles, their eyes wide open looking at each other in death. The other story is his description of waiting for the sound of the whistle, the signal for the soldiers to go "over the top" and into a hell that they could only hear until the point of scrambling out of the trench, then screaming to keep themselves running. It was after such a battle, when only my grandfather and one other man in his company were left alive, that he was assigned to work as a stretcher-bearer before being sent to join another brigade. My grandfather died at the age of seventy-seven, and to the day he died he was still removing shrapnel from his legs, from wounds received in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. My maternal grandmother, Clara, worked at the Woolwich Arsenal in London and, apparently, was almost immediately ostracized by many of her neighbors. You see, women who worked in the factories earned good money for that time, and money meant freedom, a freedom of choice and action, which led to assumptions about a young woman's morals. The fact was that the women worked long, exhausting hours in dangerous conditions. Exposure to cordite and other chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives meant that the health of the liver was compromised. Many women suffered from jaundice—the munitions workers were known as "canaries" for the color of their skin—and the chemicals also caused the hair to have coppery streaks with a lot of static that sparked when you brushed your hair. The funny thing is that Ididn't actually know she was blind in one eye until a few years ago. I was talking to my mother about Clara—she died when I was eighteen—and had always assumed that she had the family "lazy eye" that myself and several of my cousins inherited from somewhere. Then my mother said, "Oh, no, she was half-blinded at the arsenal," and the story emerged about the explosion, how the girls working alongside her had been killed. That's what I mean about that generation never talking about themselves and their experiences. Part of my research was in having my mother talk to other family members (and Clara had ten children), to see what snippets of stories she had told, then piece them together to understand something of her experiences.

Maisie's first case takes her on an unexpectedly personal journey, and it seems that, for you, writing the book was also a voyage of self-discovery. Are there insights this experience has given you about your family history and about yourself that you would care to share with us?

Writing Maisie Dobbs came to be a personal quest in a way that I would never have imagined. I had written about one third or so of the book, squeezing my writing in between work commitments, etc., and then at one point put it aside as I was so busy. During the time of writing that first part of the story, I'd moved, got married, changed jobs—all big events in the space of a year! Then another life-changing moment occurred: I was out riding my horse and had a horrible accident. As I was flying through the air I immediately knew why it was happening, in the grand scheme of things—I had left my writing behind. I suffered a very badly broken arm and crushed shoulder, which required major surgery and the sort of internal hardware that would look at home in a carpenter's shop. Then came convalescence and a good six months of rehab—I was told that even after physical therapy I would be lucky to get 75 percent of the former use of my arm. A few weeks after surgery I was visiting my friend, Adair Lara, a San Francisco writer—I can still remember this so clearly—and she said, "Convalescence is the ideal time to finish your book!" I pointed to my right arm, which was in a sort of padded sling "structure," and said, "With this?" Adair's response was, "Well you've got a left arm haven't you?" So—to cut a long story short—over half of Maisie Dobbs was finished with just one hand on the keyboard, and I was so determined to get the other hand operational that I worked hard at rehab and within three months had the book finished and a good 85 percent of my arm back. The interesting thing is that immediately before my surgery, I was reading Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, and then afterwards read her personal story of overcoming chronic fatigue in order to write. I found that to be so very inspiring. My accident paled into insignificance against such a challenge, so I was determined not to let the accident stop me, and in effect used it to make the dream of writing a novel come true.

Mysteries as a genre offer a rich interaction between fragmentation and completeness; the detective is expected to extract consistency from the scattered clues of a piecemeal reality. Your book seems especially fascinated with fragments, whether they concern the shattered faces of the denizens of the Retreat, the disruption of England's social order, or Maisie's need to come to terms with her own broken past. As you were writing, what were you thinking about all these different kinds of fragments, and how did you see them in relation to one another?

Looking back, Maisie Dobbs came together like a mosaic, blending the stories and images as one would blend fragments of color and texture. I had the separate stories in my mind's eye: Maisie, her life and background; the effects of the Great War on one particular group of veterans; Maisie in 1929 and her quest to discover the truth about the Retreat, and also to establish her reputation now that she was no longer working with Maurice Blanche. Braiding the story with these strands was a very organic process for me.

A writer who tries to re-create a historical period faces some formidable challenges. What research or literary models enabled you to reconstruct the 'teens and 'twenties so convincingly?

In writing about that time between the start of the Great War and the years leading up to WWII, I was drawing upon the fruits of my own curiosity. In addition, I have been very fortunate in the people I've known and where I grew up. We lived in a small hamlet where, until I was about ten, my brother and I were the only children and my parents were among just a few younger couples. Everyone else was from that older generation of people who came of age in the Great War. It was therefore easy for me to capture the way people interacted, the language, the protocols of communication. I always joked that my early childhood had more in common with that of an Edwardian child than with, say, my cousins who lived in London—I think that has served me well with Maisie Dobbs. In addition, I've always loved that time between the wars. I am interested in the history of fashion of that time and used to haunt the Victoria and Albert Museum's costume collection in London. Also, years ago I used to help my friend on her stall in London's Portobello Road market. She dealt mainly in Art Deco jewelry and china, so I used to read a lot about the era—I wanted to sound as if I knew what I was talking about! During the time that I was writing Maisie Dobbs, I read only nonfiction in connection with the Great War, the events of the first thirty years of the century, etc. I made several visits to use the archives at London's Imperial War Museum and also walked every street that Maisie walks in London. So many people were helpful in responding to my requests for details, as can be seen in the acknowledgments. I can't say that I had any literary models in writing Maisie Dobbs, though.

During the flashback portion at the center of the novel, Maisie is often paired with other young women: Enid, Priscilla Evernden, Iris Rigson. However, in the 1929 segments, she has no female confidante near her own age. What do you think accounts for this difference?

Maisie's journey from a girl who has tragically lost her mother, to maid, to young woman with her own business, has given her an aura of "aloneness." Enid was her friend, but they were thrown together and in truth were a bit like chalk and cheese. Yet Maisie came to love Enid for her spirit and humor, and recognized that Priscilla also had similar qualities. Again, Maisie and Iris were friends of circumstance rather than choice, but their terrible experiences in France resulted in a different kind of bond. The fact that Maisie has no such friend in 1929 is partly to do with her position and partly due to her commitment to her work. Maisie's "aloneness" comes to a head in Birds of a Feather, the second Maisie Dobbs novel.

In her studies with Maurice Blanche, Maisie may have become familiar with the principle of quantum mechanics that holds that one cannot observe something without somehow changing it. She seems particularly aware of the fact that her investigations are bound to change the people involved, and she is admirably careful about wanting to change people only for the better. How were you able to create such a humanly sensitive private investigator?

Maisie's challenges—both in breaking through the "class ceiling" and as a nurse in France—have provided her with a unique perspective. Later, in her work as an investigator, her experiences have allowed greater insights into what it means to be human. In addition, her studies and curiosity have resulted in an innate understanding of how experience changes a person, that even good change can be challenging, and that her interactions with a person might change the outcome of events, or their thinking or attitude. She takes on this responsibility and, in a way, accompanies the person to a point in their personal journey where they are safe. She is not one to simply put the clues together, sort things out and move on. As far as what enabled me to create such a character, I think my own life experiences together with my training and work as a personal/life coach have helped. I have worked with many people who have made enormous leaps of faith to bring about change in their lives and have seen how such personal journeys can be challenging and, frankly, scary. So some of that has been brought into Maisie Dobbs.

Despite all the violence that lies beneath the surface of your story—a world war, a series of unexplained deaths, and so on—you tend to deal with the actual moments of violence with careful restraint. The death of one key character is reported in a telegram. Another chapter cuts away just before a horrible explosion. Is there an authorial philosophy behind this well-mannered delicacy?

I think it's a case of "less is more." While I certainly did not want to offer a clean and tidy image of a war that was filled with pain, terror, and bloodshed, I feel that a scene of violence can be just as effectively conveyed with less graphic images—and leave the imagination to do its work. Also, apart from the scene at the casualty clearing station, I was dealing very much with the aftermath of war, with words unspoken, with memories buried, and with scars so terrible one can but weep to think of the pain suffered. I didn't want to create graphic, violent scenes that overshadowed the whole book. For me the challenge was in conveying the lingering suffering of an individual and a country.

Maisie's mentor, Maurice Blanche, is a man of remarkably keen perceptions. Have you had a Maurice Blanche in your own life?

Maurice is really an amalgam of the teachers that have most impacted my life, whether in school or work. However, in his manner, Maurice reflects a teacher and friend who was most dear to me and to whom my second Maisie Dobbs novel is dedicated. Sadly, he died before Maisie Dobbs was published—and it had been my dream since childhood to present him with a copy of my first book.

For someone dedicated to tracing through the labyrinths and "mazes" of human psychology and behavior, "Maisie" is a beautifully chosen name. In addition, the initials "M. D." are delightfully apt for someone who approaches detective work as a means toward healing. Are we right in supposing that a lot of thought went into naming her?

Gosh, I hate to admit this, but the name "Maisie Dobbs" just came to me instantly along with the character. I had never written fiction before, yet had been badgered by one of my mentors to try fiction. I had no idea where to start—my other book-length manuscript was a memoir about my childhood—yet one day as I was stuck in traffic while driving to an appointment, Maisie Dobbs just came to me, just as she does in the first chapter. In my mind's eye I watched her walking through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station. I instantly knew her name and who she was. By the time I had driven another half mile, I knew her story. After work, I rushed home to write the first fifteen or so pages that became Chapter One. I have never wavered regarding her name and never doubted that the novel would bear her name. I am forever grateful that such an inspired moment gave me such a name, as it fits her perfectly.

Do you think the traits of a good private eye also make for a good writer?

I can only speak for myself here, but I do believe that being a good, detailed, and vigilant observer—of events, people, one's environment, sounds, colors, etc.—is the key to being a good writer. Curiosity is important for me, and asking questions. Like Maurice, I'm a great believer in questions. When I think of my favorite writers, their work reflects a quest, a journey of discovery to the heart of a matter—whether that journey takes the form of an essay, a poem, a short story, or a novel.

As you point out, many of the disabled soldiers at the Retreat develop a deep loyalty to Adam Jenkins because he provides "answers to unfathomable questions" and "leadership in their uncertainty." Do you feel that Jenkins's story is in some ways a parallel to the rise of Hitler?

I do believe that people such as Jenkins, Hitler—or any such leader—gain power amid fear and uncertainty. At the heart of every cult is a compelling personality, one who exudes a certain charisma. In Jenkins I wanted to explore the wounds that resulted in his terrible acts at the Retreat. The trouble is that such individuals come to power on a tide of support from people desperate for leadership—people who are suffering emotionally,economically—and then such leaders create a mood of fear to maintain control when the people begin to doubt. Thus the people—whether a group or a nation—are powerless. And that fear can be of the leader himself and the consequence of crossing him, or of an external threat to one's safety.

The almost blank period that you have intentionally left between 1917 and 1929 is deeply tantalizing. Do you plan to fill this gap in subsequent Maisie Dobbs novels and, if so, would you like to drop any hints at the moment?

Yes, that period is extremely tantalizing. There are a couple of possibilities: A case from her days with Maurice that is reopened; and a series of stories from the early days of Maisie's apprenticeship with Maurice.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How does Maisie's brief exchange with the newspaper vendor at the beginning of the novel (pp. 3-4) help to establish her character? Why is her combination of "bearing" and her "familiar way" of speaking such a surprise to Jack? How does this combination of qualities fit in with Maisie's desire for an office that is "something in the middle, something for everyone, something central, but then again not in the thick of things"?
     
  • Maisie initially has a hard time deciding what trade description to put on her nameplate (p. 5). At the end of the novel, she has firmly decided upon "M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator." In what other ways, during the course of the story, does Maisie arrive at a clearer idea of who she is?
     
  • Enid, Maisie's roommate at Lord Compton's mansion, is vividly contrasted with Maisie. What implicit comparisons are made between the two young women? Despite her lack of formal education, does Enid possess a kind of wisdom that Maisie is slower to acquire? Does Enid's juxtaposition with Maisie help us to understand Maisie better?
     
  • When he learns that his wife is still mourning the early death of a former love who was horribly wounded in World War I, Christopher Davenham responds, "[O]ne just has to get on with it. After all, you can't just give in, can you?" (p. 52). Similarly, Mrs. Crawford criticizes James for being different from other ex-soldiers who have "got on with it" (p. 207). You may have noticed that the phrase "Get on with it" becomes an important motif late in the novel (cf. pp. 283 and 292). If getting on with it is such sensible advice, why is it so hard to follow?
     
  • Throughout most of the novel, the facial disfigurement of the veterans who join the colony at the Retreat generates sympathy for them. However, at a climactic moment in the story, their wounds are used to make them appear monstrous and inhuman: "With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them, had never ended" (p. 262). In the story, and elsewhere, for that matter, can sympathy and repulsion exist comfortably side by side, or must one eventually triumph?
     
  • How does the young Maisie of the flashback chapters differ from the mature Maisie?
     
  • What obstacles does Maisie have to surmount, both personally and professionally, because she is a woman? How does her feminine identity influence her professional demeanor and investigative style? How do the obstacles of gender in the novel contrast with the obstacles of class?
     
  • Maisie finds herself situated between two powerful father figures: Frankie, her natural father; and Maurice, her intellectual "father." Both of these men represent different parts of Maisie's life and character though they have very little in common. How successful is Maisie in balancing their influences?
     
  • Despite the sinister nature of the Retreat, Billy Beale initially finds the compound somewhat attractive and feels respect for Adam Jenkins. Why?
     
  • Is Maisie as skilled at resolving her own inner conflicts as she is at dealing with those of others? Are there any relationships in particular that you think she mismanages? Why?
     
  • Imagine Maisie Dobbs as the basis for a screenplay. Choose a scene and discuss how you, as the director, would want to film it.
     
  • What is your response to the ending of the novel, particularly the last meeting between Simon and Maisie? Is Maisie more focused on her suffering or Simon's? Is her focus where it ought to be? Does the scene resolve the tensions of the story or heighten them?
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 172 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 172 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2004

    A Rare Treat

    I recommend this book to everyone. Classified as a mystery, it transends any one genre with its psychological and spiritual overtones, class struggle, and battlefield scenes woven nicely into the dire circumstances of WWI Europe. And, oh yes, there is a mystery to be solved. Jackie Winspear has created a believable,admirable character in Maisie Dobbs. The reader pulls for her while racing through the well-crafted story. Maisie Dobbs should move right to the bestseller list along with The Secret Life of Bees and The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Winspear was nominated for an Edgar, and won an Agatha for Maisie Dobbs. I'm looking forward to her next book, Birds of A Feather.

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2011

    Very Highly Recommended

    I first noticed Ms. Winspear when the last book in this series, so far, was atop the best sellers list. I bought the first in the series, read it, loved it and immediately purchased the entire remaining set. I couldn't recommend it more highly. I knew a lot about the conditions in Germany between the World Wars but very little, as it turns out, about the conditions in England. Ms. Winspear's meticulous research and historically accurate depiction of life in England during that period makes the books worth reading for that reason alone. That they are also outstanding mysteries with that compelling can't-put-down quality is an amazing bonus. There are few authors who I buy in hardcover, preferring to wait for the paperback but Ms. Winspear is now among that elite list for me, when she publishes, I want the book NOW. The vernacular takes some getting used to but it in no way detracts from the story or the history. Wonderful reading.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 6, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Like a dose of Masterpiece Theatre!

    I'm not one for mysteries and not one for serials. I purchased this one to send to my mom, but as I was looking for an easy read and this one was in reach I cracked it open to take a gander. Well, it was a pleasant surprise! It didn't take long before I found myself engrossed in the life of Maisie Dobbs.

    As this is the first in the Maisie Dobbs series, it was light on the mystery and heavy on the "set up" and history for the series (which could be why I liked it so much). It also felt like I was reading an episode of Masterpiece Theatre--which I absolutely love. Maisie seems like somone I would have as a friend and Winspear's writing gave me strong images of WWI post-WWI England. Finally, the last two pages had me sobbing like a baby. Kudos Winspear for such a lovely story! I look forward to book #2.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2010

    Maisie Dobbs, Boring Lady Detective

    I'd heard much about Maisie Dobbs so I decided to buy the first book in the series. Ick. Perhaps the subsequent novels in this series are more interesting because this book is lacking in plot, character, and dialogue. I can't find anything to hold my interest. Maisie, while having many superior qualities, is so boring and humor-free that she never comes alive to me as a person. She is just words on a page. None of the characters are interesting and I am sick of the oft-quoted advice of Maisie's detective tutor, Marice. His homilies and quips are annoying. The plot is lacking too. I have no interest in why the dead soldier is buried with just his first name on a tomb. That's not a very compelling plot. I have given up on the book because it's just so mind-numbingly boring. Life is too short to read bad books.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2009

    Great Book Club selection

    Being the first it was loaded with back ground info on the characters. I would highly recommended starting with this book. That said World War 1 is such a large part of this book and for me the best part of the book. I wonder if the author has made her Psychologist and Investigator business interesting enough for Maisie books to keep me buying. She is the perfect daughter, friend and associate that you just go ho-hum she's visiting again. I recommended it for a book club because there is so much to talk about and it would be one of those book you like or don't like. Makes for a lively discussion but Maisie herself does not interest me enough to read another.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 20, 2011

    Once You Meet Maisie...

    Once you meet Maisie, you won't be happy until you've read as much of her story as has yet been told. This first entry in Winspear's series (now up to #8, with #9 in the wings) is an excellent beginning to a totally delightful series. We meet Maisie as an early teenager who enters domestic service when her family falls on hard times just before the outbreak of WWI. By dent of her own hard work and some extraordinary good luck, she manages to achieve an education and resulting independence, while solving mysteries along the way. The series is filled with intresting, well-developed characters and a good backdrop of England between the World Wars. Maisie's approach to solving cases reflects the growing interest in "alienists" (pyschologists) and foreshadows today's use of behaviorial analysis in crime solving. Her detection is thoughtful in every sense of the word, and it is spiced up with some wonderful moments of droll humor.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2003

    Looking forward to more Maisie Dobbs

    Winspear has succeeded in making something new out of the mystery novel... the mystery behind the plot draws you in and keeps you turning the pages but this book also has soul. This originality comes through in its exploration of the ethics, almost the spirituality, that underlie the profession of private investigator. In a highly original combination, Winspear works Buddhism, philosophy, feminism, the history of WWI, and an ideal of personal growth into an enjoyable mystery story that not only drew me in but inspired me. Maisie Dobbs is written with a lot of heart. I'm looking forward to hearing more of her story.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2011

    Maisie Dobbs Series

    I repurchased this book because it is the first in the series. I had lent this book to a co-worker and never got it back. I really enjoy this series and I wanted a complete set. I plan on re-reading the series from beginning book to end in about 10 years. The book "Maisie Dobbs" was a find in a tiny little book store. Who knew I would be "hooked!" I am so glad I was able to buy this one again to add to my set!!!! She is a great character. The book has mystery, compassion and the hardships of war, that any of us can experience. I think if you start with the first one you will get hooked just as I did!!!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 29, 2010

    Maisie Dobbs

    Excellent! This is a book I would re-read and that doesn't occur often. The writing reminds me of Anne Perry, in her WW1 novels, and yet Winspear has a distinctive style all her own.

    Winspear has done a beautiful job of giving her characters breadth and depth, then again, I do think the Brits do a much better job of this as they take the time to introduce us to the charcter and allow us to discover the multi-dimensional personalites.

    The plot is also multi-dimensional which gives further reason for why the characters are present. I did enjoy the handling of the time periods.

    As I have already ordered the next couple of books in this series I obviously recommend it. If the next books are as captivating as this first one then I will be delighted.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2003

    Thoughtful Tale of WWI

    Maisie Dobbs is an interesting, well-researched story of WWI and the aftermath. I found it very enjoyable, and hope that the author does continue with the series. Maisie is complicated and empathetic -- an unusual, likeable heroine.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2003

    Good Book!

    I recently read this book and enjoyed it very much. According to the book jacket, it is intended to be the first in a series. If so, I look forward to reading the next 'Maisie Dobbs.' The basic plot (serving girl gets educated by broad minded employer) may be a bit cliched, but given the time period and what happened to the social classes at that time, it comes off as believable. Part of what made this book interesting was the way Maisie's psychological situation was revealed to the reader.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A great start to a historical mystery series

    Maisie Dobbs takes place following World War I in London. It's an era that I didn't know much about, and so soaking in all of the atmosphere that Winspear so painstakingly researched was a revelation. Although I'm not much of a clotheshorse, I really enjoyed how the author described Maisie's clothes. My mother-in-law designs and makes antique clothes, and as I read this book, I thought of how much she would love this.

    I like how Maisie is so intelligent, yet she doesn't have all the answers. The way she mimics the posture of the person with whom she is talking to make them more comfortable with her fascinated me. Her mentor Dr. Maurice Blanche's psychological insights to Maisie, such as
    "Never follow a story with a question, Maisie, not immediately. And remember to acknowledge the storyteller, for in some way even the messenger is affected by the story he brings,"
    are illuminating, and useful to the reader.

    Maisie's straddling of two different classes of society- her father's working class and her benefactor's aristocratic one- makes for interesting conflict for her. Her father, a groom on the estate where Maisie is a maid, wants a better life for Maisie, yet fears losing her completely to her new life. Lady Rowan, her employer and benefactor, is an interesting character and I hope we get to see more of her in future books.

    And in the end, it was Enid, Maisie's fellow maid, who was the greatest influence on Maisie. Her words to Maisie about her duty to help the boys in the war effort may have had the deepest effect on Maisie's life.

    Maisie Dobbs starts in 1930, after Maisie has become a private investigator, and establishes the adult Maisie before taking us back to her childhood and the story of how Maisie got to where she is. It is a good technique because we are so invested in Maisie's adult life before we see how she got there.

    I felt that the author's take on the horrors of war resonated deeply. So much of what happened to the men and women who fought in war is universal and timeless. While techniques of war have changed greatly since World War I, the awful effects of it have not. I liked seeing war from a female point of view.

    But my favorite quote from the book has to do with reading, of course.
    "The feeling inside that she experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew she needed this sustenance as surely as her body needed fuel."
    That just might be my new Facebook quote.

    Since Maisie is a private investigator, there is a mystery to be solved, and mystery fans will be satisfied with this part of the story. But for me, the story of Maisie's life is what I felt most deeply about and I look forward to finding out more about her in the books to come.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2007

    Very Unpredictable!

    Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear is a heart-wrenching mystery and novel written to take place during the early 1900s. I would recommend this book to some people, but if you need to keep track of things in succession, I would skip the book. It jumps around a little bit and the beginning was a slow one for me. I believe the author was trying to get across how deeply some of the soldiers were affected when the war was over. Friends and family abandoned some soldiers when they finally came home. Some soldiers were mentally traumatized whereas others had minor physical impairments, such as limps, all the way to being horribly disfigured and not recognizable by loved ones. A big part of the story is the mystery and astonishing uncovering of a veteran retreat. During that unveiling, it seemed that those men had never left the war in the first place. The book emphasizes the postponement of marriage during this time because many men, who were sent overseas, never came home alive. As time passes, it¿s easier for wounds to heal and to ignore past feelings and this story points it out, in a big way! Jacqueline was successful in presenting the hardships of broken relationships after wartime. It was mentioned more than once that family just ¿stopped visiting¿ and friends never bothered to get in touch and claimed, they too, were just so shocked and were not ready to meet up.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2015

    Gret Wonderful character that ms.dobbs

    Excited to read more.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2014

    Find this portion of history fascinating. I found very little my

    Find this portion of history fascinating. I found very little mystery with this book though. However, good characters are more intriguing to me than a curious mystery so no big loss for me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 22, 2014

    Highly Recommend

    Well done...excellent story

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 13, 2014

    Highly recommended

    I have read this book in the past as a library book. This time I read it as our book group's choice for this month. It is a quick read but has a lot of information about World War I and the terrible loss of soldiers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2014

    Fabulous!

    Wonderfully written WWI period story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2014

    Great female detective from the 1920's England

    This is a book club read since it was recommended by public radio. I loved the character of Maisie Dobbs. The book blends psychological concepts, mindfulness, WWI history, turn of the century England, and relationships into the mystery. Her writing style is clear, well edited. The story line logical, enough extras to add flavor, but not too much to distract from the point of the story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2014

    Great historical mystery

    I picked up this book on the recommendation of a friend, and I'm glad I did! It was very informative and interesting. I couldn't put it down, and as soon as I finished it, I started the second book in the series.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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