Why Maisie Dobbs author Jacqueline Winspear says it’s time to end the series

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels immerse you so deeply into 20th-century British life that you could get lost in the past.

Just ask the author.

“I was sitting in my office, working away; air conditioning was on. I’m in London on a foggy, cold day in winter, and I thought I’d better stop for a bite to eat,” says Winspear during a Zoom interview a few days before the June 4 publication of her latest book, “The Comfort of Ghosts.” “I came out of my office into the garden, and went, ‘Oh my god!’ I had a real culture shock.”

Turns out, that dank London fog had all been in her imagination. She was at home in 21st-century California. 

“I was in Ojai writing. I’d had the curtains closed because, you know, it’s bright and sunny out there and it was a very hot day,” says the British-born author who has lived in the United States for 34 years, mainly in California and the Pacific Northwest. 

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“I just was so immersed I didn’t realize where I was. It’s easy to do that, but I guess I’m so well-practiced now that I can really drop into the era I write about. I can drop into the story.” 

However, the author says she isn’t planning to drop in on Maisie Dobbs anymore.

After 18 books about psychologist and investigator Dobbs and her supporting cast of characters, Winspear announced that “The Comfort of Ghosts” is the final book of the series, which she began writing 24 years ago and first published in 2003. Winspear says the novel, without giving away spoilers, aims to provide a satisfying accounting for all the main characters.

“It’s not a new decision,” she says about ending the series. “I wanted there to be an arc to the overall body of work, not just an arc to each story.

“It’s bittersweet because I’m saying goodbye to the characters. But the great thing is, I have my body of work. It’s there, it’s solid, and it’s not drifting off anywhere,” she says. “I didn’t see the point of carrying on a series or coming up with plots just to carry on … I had done what I needed to do with them, what I wanted to do.”

The novel’s publication also brings Winspear back to her first publisher, Soho Crime, which first launched the series. “The Comfort of Ghosts” is dedicated to the late Laura Hruska, Soho’s co-founder and Winspear’s first editor.

“There was just something right about the idea of coming full circle,” she says. “It was as if, you know, it was the arc to my story.” 

Way Out West

Winspear wrote a moving tribute to the character Maisie Dobbs in a newsletter published June 4, in which she also revealed the very California origins of this very British character. (She followed up with another update on June 10 to say she’d broken a bone in her foot while at the airport and needed to put her appearances on hold.)

“You certainly changed my life, the day you walked into my imagination while I was stuck in traffic,” writes Winspear about Maisie Dobbs. “By the time I reached the office, I had your whole story in my head, even though I had not written a word of fiction since childhood.”

Considering that Winspear has lived here so long, does she consider herself a California writer?

“I think a lot of there’s a lot of California in me,” she says in a crisp British accent, adding that she’s occasionally mistaken for an American when visiting friends in the U.K. “Have I changed? There are things about me that have changed, but there are also my foundations, which are very firmly British.”

Speaking from her home in the Pacific Northwest, where she spends a lot of time, she explained how she landed in Ojai.

“When I first came to California, I lived in Ventura County, and I always liked Ojai very much because it’s got that small-town feel, and it has a great bookshop, good old Bart’s books,” says Winspear. “It was actually for my husband’s health; he needed to live in a more stable climate. And also, my brother lived there … it’s nice to have family close by.”

Winspear speculated on another reason that might have led to her move out West. “My dad loved cowboys. We watched American TV shows when I was a kid,” she says. “America was the shining star on the hill.”

Family stories

Winspear’s 2020 memoir about growing up in rural England, “This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing,” is rich in detail about her early life and provides glimpses into the inspirations for her work. Her interest in the past was piqued during her peripatetic childhood, which at times involved living on a farm without indoor plumbing

“Storytelling was big in my family … Everything became something to talk about,” she says. “Where we lived, there weren’t many kids; there were actually a lot of elderly people. And ever since I was a little girl, someone only had to say, ’Well, in my day…’ and I was ears flapping, you know? I couldn’t wait to hear about ‘their day.’”

Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs historical-mystery novels, discusses “The Comfort of Ghosts,” the final book in the series. (Covers courtesy of Soho Crime, Henry Holt, Harper)

The Maisie Dobbs novels, which span the period between the two World Wars, combine history and mystery, often exploring the visible and invisible effects of violence and trauma upon soldiers and people back home. Winspear’s interest in the experiences of soldiers in the First World War arose in part from her interactions with her own grandfather.

“Veterans don’t have finite dates for their wars. My grandfather, who was severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, was still removing shrapnel from his legs when he died, aged 77, in 1966,” says Winspear, who wrote in her memoir about seeing her grandfather massaging his scarred legs and picking metal splinters from out of his skin.

She recounts a beloved teacher and neighbor who told her about seeing a WWI veteran with severe facial wounds, a story that both haunted her and helped inspire elements of the first novel. That teacher, Ken Leech, and his wife Pat, influenced Winspear in other ways: their passion and care for animals found a willing audience in the author. (In her recent essay, Winspear, a dog lover who trains in the equestrian sport of dressage, praises her “writing buddies,” the dogs who dozed under her desk as she wrote. During our conversation, she talked about volunteering at the Humane Society and spoke passionately about aiding horses endangered by the war in Ukraine.)

Winspear says the memoir helped her unearth memories that had played an important part of her life, but she’d not been consciously aware of.

“When I wrote my memoir, I recounted a conversation between me and my mother that I realized has underpinned everything I’ve written for the last 24 years,” says Winspear. “I only realized it a few years ago when I wrote the memoir.”

Winspear’s formidable mother – who told her daughter many stories, including that she’d been pulled from the rubble of a bombed-out building during the London Blitz – at one time worked as an administrator in Britain’s prison system, and Winspear recalls asking her mother about the young offenders at the detention center and how they had ended up there.

“She said, ‘You know, Jackie, it’s because someone, somewhere along the line, didn’t care enough,’” says Winspear. “That had such an impact, and I didn’t know it. It was almost as if it nestled in my heart and stayed there.

“I realized it’s underpinned the character of Maisie Dobbs. I wanted to write about people who cared enough amid everything that’s happened,” she says. “I wanted to write about a character that cares enough through the best and worst of times.”

Farewell, Maisie

Having concluded the series, Winspear has “several” new projects underway, including a more lighthearted story about a character who’d previously had a small role in the saga. For that one, or perhaps another, Winspear is already doing prep.

“I’m doing the research right now, and I’ve got a trip planned later in the year. I’m not even going to tell you where I’m going,” she says. “Because I’ll give the game away.” 

So she’s got plenty to do, but it must be asked: Won’t it be hard to say goodbye to Maisie Dobbs? 

“My story is wrapped up in the story of Maisie Dobbs,” she says. “I don’t think she’s ever going to leave my head.” 

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