Courtesy of Harper Collins Publishing

April 9, 2018

Crime and History: A Review of To Die But Once

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Despite the proverb, I shamelessly judged To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear’s latest novel in her Maisie Dobbs British crime series, by the cover. With its ominous opaque figure front and center, surrounded by airplanes, and the catchy title, I was already hooked. As the fourteenth novel in the series, To Die But Once reads almost mechanically. It’s as if there is a formula to the prose and all Winspear has to do is fill in the plot. But the ease of the novel is not to be construed as pedestrian or uninspired. Rather, reading it was akin to watching the next episode of a popular television drama: perhaps predictable, but nonetheless gripping.

As the cover evokes, To Die But Once places protagonist Maisie Dobbs in England during World War II. A brief prologue dated 1940 describes teenager Joe Coombes’s daily life working as an apprentice for a painting company that paints RAF facilities with fire-retardant. A seemingly typical mama’s boy, Joe discusses his earnest fears and aversion to joining the army, only to hear a mysterious sound one minute, and be bludgeoned to death the next. The next chapter begins with father Phil Coombes recruiting reliable Maisie Dobbs to find his missing son. As anticipated, the search ensues for the son that the reader knows to be dead after a mere four pages. Maisie is forced to navigate misleading clues that lead her to question false conclusions that involve a fatal fall onto a railway track, but the dramatic irony from the prologue fuels the tension that carries the plot through twists and turns that lead Maisie to inevitably find the truth. She, of course, cannot be fooled, and is prompted to pursue the suspicious activity of the Coombeses and the reason for the mysterious brain lesion in Joe’s autopsy report.

Meanwhile, the reader who has tuned into Winspear’s earlier installments is fully aware of Maisie Dobb’s dramatic personal life. From the death of her husband to a recent miscarriage to motions to adopt a daughter, Anna, the novel continues the narrative of Dobb’s personal life. The unraveling of her own life is mirrored by the unravelling of the historical narrative in the novel. The description of England during World War II is, at times, more apparent than the crime plot. The depiction of England during the war is often at the forefront of the narrative, which toys with the genre of historical fiction. The British response to the retreat of Dunkirk and the looming of German encroachment is certainly prevalent in the novel. Via her duties as an investigator, Maisie is thrown into the complexities of war and money. The novel calls on typical wartime tropes and emotions of anxiety and tension. This aspect of the novel felt somewhat unoriginal. Nonetheless, the novel uses the cliched facets of the mystery and crime genre to its advantage, so why do anything different with its treatment of war? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

The emotional impact of war is the more compelling plot in To Die But Once, especially once Maisie is forced to confront the realities of the war in relation to her own life, whether that entails her godson’s involvement in Dunkirk or the personal, more internal, anxieties she faces. It is the appeal to Maisie’s character, one that readers have come to know fairly intimately, that drives the continuation of Windspear’s success. Beyond having a strong female lead tackling a fairly romantic period of war and strife, Maisie Dobbs is a vehicle for conveying larger nationalistic pride in Britain that is ever present throughout To Die But Once and all of its forebears.


Victoria Horrocks is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].