An expert in murder, by Nicola Upson

Josephine Tey was a (pseudonymous) novelist and playwright most active between the 1930s and 1950s, perhaps most famous these days for her rehabilitation of Richard III in her novel THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, and for her long-running play, written under another pseudonym of Gordon Daviot, called Richard of Bordeaux (about an earlier king, Richard II), which made the career of the young John Gielgud. Tey wrote several mystery novels, two of my childhood favourites being THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR, about a young girl who accuses two spinster ladies of abducting her, and BRAT FARRAR, about an heir to a fortune who is a possible impostor.

Nicola Upson's debut novel imagines Josephine Tey visiting London, both for a performance of Richard of Bordeaux and for a business meeting to plan a touring version of the play and the opening of her next effort, a life of Mary Queen of Scots. On the train from her home in Inverness, Josephine meets and befriends Elspeth, a young fan, whom she arranges to meet later in the week, after a performance. On arrival at King's Cross, Josephine goes to stay with the Motley sisters, real-life theatre designers but in AN EXPERT IN MURDER, also cousins of Josephine's long-term companion, police inspector Archie Penrose (said here to be the model for real-life Josephine Tey's fictional detective, Alan Grant). She soon discovers that Elspeth was cruelly murdered just after the train arrived at King's Cross.

Although the book starts well, it loses some of its focus when Josephine is not involved in events. She is an interesting character, but takes a back seat for most of the book, while we read an over-long series of vignettes about the lives of the theatre company and associates, learn more about Elspeth's suburban relations and, after a second person is killed, various theories about a possible relationship between the two deaths. Josephine is also contradictory in some aspects – for example, we are told she is retiring and likes peace and quiet, but in London she chooses to stay with the noisiest, most flamboyant characters in the book.

There is not really any detection in this book. The characters are like the pieces of a jigsaw, in that each one of them holds an incomplete part of the story. As the police interview everyone connected with the victims, the full picture gradually comes into focus. The book is set in the early 1930s, when the First World War was very close in everyone's minds: almost every person was affected by it, either as a serving soldier, or by losing a loved one, or in other ways. The solution to the crimes is only possible when an older mystery of a death in the trenches is also solved – the job of the police, and of Josephine when she finally does become more of a central character towards the end of the book, is to hear everyone's story and put together the pieces. This is one of those books in which almost every character turns out to be connected to everyone else in several ways – even the meeting on the train between Josephine and Elspeth was not coincidental. And by full knowledge of these various connections, the murder mysteries, old and new, are solved.

Nicola Upson cleverly merges fact with fiction throughout AN EXPERT IN MURDER. Josephine Tey, for example, did in reality have to defend a plagiarism court case over Richard of Bordeaux, her most successful play, and the author extrapolates this event into the solution of the mystery in her book. Yet although clever, I find this juxtaposition of real and imaginary unsatisfactory, as I am constantly aware in the back of my mind that "Josephine Tey" is a fiction, but that some of what happens in the book was "real". Some aspects of the book are very sad and poignant, but I think they would have been even stronger in a wholly fictional construction, rather than in this half-fiction/half-fact way of taking a person's life and some known events, then adding imaginary melodrama, characters, actions and feelings. The whole is, for me, a curate's egg. Nevertheless, the evocation of London's theatreland and the snapshot of life in Britain at that time seems to be very well-researched and conveyed.

First published on Euro Crime, March 2008

This entry was posted in Books, Crime fiction, Debut, England, Eurocrime, Europe, Historical, Mystery, Police procedural, Private investigator, Series and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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