About Me

My photo
Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Monday, May 24, 2021

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear

(16. - 1088.) To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear - It is May of 1940 and a new generation has stepped forward for war. Billy Beale’s son, young Billy, is with the British Expeditionary Force in France. Young Joe Coombes from the local pub is painting RAF bases with fire retardant paint. Priscilla’s oldest, Tom, is in the RAF. Her 16 year old, Tim, desperately wants to “prove himself” in the service of his country. Unlike contemporary wars the young from the English upper classes through those of working families sign up.

As the German armies press the British Expenditionary Force to the French coast Billy is deeply worried about our Billy. The Coombes, Phil and Sally, are equally concerned about a lack of contact from Joe.

When Joe is found dead on a railroad track Maisie feels compelled to find out what happened. The police, with all the issues of the war, can devote little time to the apparent accidental death of a teenager in the countryside.

As this new loss is absorbed Maisie’s mother-in-law, Rowan, expresses her long frustration over her son, James, risking and losing his life flying when Maisie was pregnant. Maisie tells her:

James died doing something he loved, and we all adored him for his passion. He chose to be an aviator, and chose to test a new fighter aircraft for the government - it was a fateful day and it changed all our lives. Yet it serves no one to go back and forth trying to apportion blame. Forgive yourself, Rowan. Forgive yourself and set yourself free of this blame, of regret.”

Regular trains are delayed by the troop trains bringing back troops evacuated from Dunkirk. Initially the English people were not told of the extent of the crisis. Only when the government realized it could not rescue the army with naval ships did the call go out for “pleasure craft” and “able-bodied men” and the civilian armada was created that crossed the English Channel to the beaches.

The anxiety level of the nation ratchets up as virtually everyone knows someone on the beaches or in the boats gone to pick them up.

The stress becomes almost unbearable when Priscilla and Maisie determine Tim and his 16 year old friend, Gordon, have taken Gordon’s family boat to Dunkirk. Reading of the  continuing fear of the families, for there is no communication possible, brought alive how agonizing it was during WW II for those on the home front worrying about their loved ones.

While they are now the older generation Priscilla and Maisie will do their bit for the war effort. They have signed up to be volunteer ambulance drivers in London. Readers with any knowledge of history cannot help but dread what they will experience in the Blitz. For now they are splitting time between London and the country trying to enjoy a fine summer.

Maisie has fallen in love. Originally she took over guardianship of the little girl, Anna, who lost her mother and grandmother and whose father had long ago returned to Malta. Anna had been sent to the countryside in the previous book, In This Grave Hour, with thousands of children for safety. Now Maisie desperately wants to adopt her. Bureaucracy, even or maybe especially in war, is making it difficult for Maisie to adopt as she is considered a single woman. Being widowed is a cruel disadvantage.

There is a most unusual subplot. I never knew the Bank of England essentially moved to the countryside during the war with most bank notes being made in Hampshire. And more banknotes than usual needed to be printed as existing notes were so constantly in circulation they wore out faster than in peacetime. It was interesting though a touch contrived to fit into the story.

All the books in the series are good but To Die But Once is not one of the best. The murder investigation gets lost at times in the personal dramas of the characters. There is not the flair and insight I am accustomed to from Maisie. She is a bit too much the bystander for me. 

Maisie, now 43, is gradually becoming part of the Establishment. She can easily afford an investigation with no paying client. While she avoids using her title her friends and associates are increasingly members of the upper classes. Being an upper class sleuth is an English fictional tradition but if Maisie is to be a mother will being a detective also count against her in the adoption process?


Winspear, Jacqueline – (2008) - Maisie Dobbs(Best fiction of 2008) (2008) - Birds of a Feather; (2009) - Pardonable Lies; (2011) - Messenger of Truth; (2012) - An Incomplete Revenge; (2012) - Among the Mad; (2013) - The Mapping of Love and Death; (2016) - A Lesson in Secrets; (2016) - Elegy for Eddie; (2018) Leaving Everything Most Loved; (2020) - A Dangerous Place - Part I on Maisie's life since the last book and Part II a review; (2020) - A Journey to Munich; (2021) - In This Grave Hour; Hardcover or paperback by choice


  1. One thing I like about this series, Bill, is the sense of time and place that Winspear provides. There's a real feel for everything going on at the time, and I respect that. That said, though, I know what you mean about the mystery plot not getting enough attention. I think that's a delicate balance that writers have to strike, and it's not easy. Still, I really do like the way Maisie's character has developed over the years.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I do feel I am in the time period of each of the books in the series. I find myself caring about Maisie as if she were a real person. I hope and expect she will get to adopt Anna but respect that disappointment and tragedy take place in her life as they do in all lives.

  2. I keep reading good reviews of this series and thinking I need to get back to reading it. I think I just read the first three. I wonder if it would work to jump ahead to some of the novels which are getting closer to World War II?

    1. TracyK: You can certainly jump ahead and enjoy the series but there is a life narrative going on so that it would not be easy to go back to earlier books because of the information disclosed in subsequent books about what has gone on before.