To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

We first met Maisie Dobbs in the years before World War I when she was a young girl who had lost her mother and was being raised by her father. Her father found a position for her as a maid to an aristocratic family. That benevolent family took an interest in the young girl and helped to educate her. Her relationship with the family was the making of her. It was through them that she became the person that she was as an adult, and eventually, she married the son of the family and emigrated to Canada. But tragedy followed her. Her husband was killed and she returned to England.

In this latest installment, we have progressed all the way to the beginnings of World War II. It is 1940 and England is on edge. It has not been attacked directly yet, but an attack is expected imminently. Meanwhile, their forces in Europe are being pushed back to the sea. The Dunkirk rescue looms.

Maisie is still pursuing her profession as an investigator and psychologist, ably assisted by her longtime right-hand man Billy Beale. 

A local pub owner asks Maisie's help in finding out what has happened to his son. The young man had taken a job with a painting firm that had a government contract to paint various government buildings with fire retardant paint. He was away in Kent doing this work and had been in contact with his family on a regular basis but now has missed calling them for a couple of weeks and the parents are worried. Maisie agrees to investigate.

Meantime, Billy is worried about his older son who is with the forces in Europe and his younger son who is chafing at the bit to get involved in the war effort. And Maisie's friend Priscilla is terrified of losing her three sons in the war as she lost her three brothers in the First World War. Her oldest is in the RAF; the middle son wants to join the military but is too young without the parents' permission; the youngest is not yet old enough but if the war continues for years, he, too, will want to be involved.  

To further complicate the book's plot, Maisie has decided that she wants to adopt Anna, the young girl that she took in as an evacuee along with her grandmother. The grandmother had subsequently died and left Maisie as the child's guardian. Now she wants to become her mother, but the authorities are reluctant to allow a single mother (widow) to adopt.

And it's all just too much. Yes, I do realize that in real life all of these things do happen simultaneously, but in a work of literature, I think it is helpful to have the focus on one or perhaps at most two events. Winspear is asking us to focus on and care about all of these different occurrences. She rushes from one storyline to another and the various stories lose some of their emotional impact in the process.

As always, Winspear does an excellent job of setting the historic scene. One can feel the fear and uncertainty experienced by those who lived through these perilous times. For those of us who take for granted our ability to travel and to communicate and stay linked to friends and family far away, Winspear helps us to feel what it was like not so very long ago when those things were not possible. 

And that is why I keep reading these books - for the historical perspective which they provide of the daily lives of ordinary people. It's there that Winspear really shines. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 


  1. Having read quite a lot of historical fiction set in Great Britain during this period, I can attest that she does hit many of the issues of the time according to your review. Whether that makes good fiction is a matter you rightly bring up.

  2. Also, I wondered if you had seen my review of A Terrible Country. I can't remember if you had read/reviewed it, but I thought you might find the book of interest.

    1. I think I am behind with my blog reading. I'll make a point to look this one up.

  3. Too bad Winspear focused on a few too many threads. I'm glad that despite you not thinking this one was that strong an entry, you still want to keep on reading the series. For some reason I thought Maisie was a nurse during the war, no? Or am I thinking of yet another character in some of the series you read?

    1. You remember correctly. Maisie was a nurse in World War I. After the war she went on to become a psychologist and to set up shop as an investigator.


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