Author of the Month

Name: Nicola Upson

First Novel: An Expert in Murder

Most Recent Book: Fear in the Sunlight

'‘Fear in the Sunlight’ is a truly delicious and sultry affair...'

The year is 1954, two years after the sudden death of novelist, Josephine Tey and Archie Penrose’s good friend. He is readying himself for retirement but first he listens to a young detective from the States who has information that will transport Archie back eighteen years to the summer of 1936.

July 1936: Portmeirion. Josephine Tey is celebrating her fortieth birthday in the Welsh village with a few friends. Celebrating isn’t exactly what Josephine would call it, but there are reasons for her visit. She intends to meet with Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma who have shown interest in making her new crime novel, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ in to a film directed by the great man himself. Under the beating sun petty jealousies, all consuming hatred and a crime two decades old reverberate down the years to shatter the beautiful scenery and peaceful harmony to leave it tainted with blood, lots of blood.

And now, eighteen years later, Archie Penrose finds that what should have been the end to a case has yet more to spew from it’s own version of Pandora’s Box.

In ‘Fear in the Sunlight’, Upson writes with a languorous style, wonderfully conveying the heat of Portmeirion and its visitors who languish like lizards under the punishing sunlight. Immediately you are transported, the sun a globe of fire, the cooling sea lapping at your toes and large quantities of liquids to keep the continuous thirst at bay. With Portmeirion as Upson’s backdrop to the play about to be enacted, she gives us a veritable Garden of Eden, green, lush and with a serpent at its heart. Upson is a huge fan of P.D. James who has been so instrumental in taking crime fiction to another level. In Upson’s latest, the ‘crimes’ do not start until late in the book, but beforehand she beautifully sets the ‘scene’ and delivers us three-dimensional performers who live, breath, laugh and in particular, hate. For many readers, the setting of the scene and the squabbling of the players is as important, if not more so, than the crimes committed. The story is so ‘human’ I could have been convinced it was fact rather than fiction I was reading.

Thankfully, Upson has not turned Tey in to a ‘Miss Marple’, but the stories have simply evolved around factual events in Tey’s life. And this is where Upson’s meticulous research comes up trumps. With subtlety and an assured hand Upson builds a sequence of scenes that are loosely based on events that took place in Tey’s life – here it is centred around Tey’s book being optioned for film. But Upson isn’t solely in love with her main protagonist – everyone has a bite of the cherry and Archie Penrose is a creditable and loveable upright man who is the personification of law and order is also given his frustrations and loves as any normal man.

Over this act of malice the great Hitchcock looms large and in some instances, the instigator and manipulator of the actors under his thrall. Upson is ambivalent to the man and although he brings another dimension to the story he does not become the centre of it. If anything Upson appears to prefer the company of Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville who quietly manoeuvres people with guile, steering them to her way of thinking without them realising. As with ‘Two For Sorrow’ the unfolding events in Upson’s latest are connected to a distant deed in the past with more connections between the cast of characters than the London Underground. But with clarity Upson brings everything together and right up to the end there are casualties and a marvellous twist placed on the very last page.

Upson raises the curtain on a piece of theatre which slowly becomes oppressive as the heat leaches the energy from the air and brings repressed emotions and anger to the fore. ‘Fear in the Sunlight’ is a truly delicious and sultry affair and shows that after only four novels Upson is already more than capable to carry on the torch for well-crafted, intelligent crime fiction for the next generation of writers.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) It has been two years since your brilliant last novel, ‘Two for Sorrow’. Has your latest book, ‘Fear in the Sunlight’, been more complex than you expected?
They always are! But yes, having Alfred Hitchcock as a character was a lot to take on, and I wanted to tell the story in a way that would suit the fact that ‘Fear in the Sunlight’ is about film - in scenes rather than the chapter by chapter development I’m used to - and that needed a lot of planning. Starting a new book is always the hardest part for me: having all those new characters - it’s like walking into a room full of strangers and having to engage with them, and that’s never my favourite moment! But the main obstacle was probably how much I loved writing ‘Two for Sorrow’ - it was a very hard novel to leave behind.
2) Do you get carried away with the research? And do you sometimes tell yourself to stop and start writing the novel?
It is tempting to get carried away with it - partly because it’s always much easier to read other people’s books than to write your own, and partly because it’s a joy. I do a lot of the research with my partner - spending time getting to know the various locations as well as reading - and that’s nice because the actual writing is so insular. We’ve had some amazing moments, particularly with the ongoing research into Tey’s life. From April 1935 to March 1936, one of her friends - the actress, Marda Vanne - wrote her a year-long love letter in the form of a diary. I’ll never forget the day that my partner and I first discovered it, almost by accident, when we were following some other lines of Tey research - page after page of thin blue paper, covered in impossibly tiny handwriting. It’s written partly in code, and takes a lot of deciphering, but it’s an extraordinary piece of writing - loving, angry, funny, perceptive and scorchingly honest. Some of Marda’s words from the diary are quoted in ‘Two for Sorrow’, as part of an ongoing storyline between Josephine and another character.

So research also tends to influence some of the most interesting plot moments in the book, and it’s very satisfying when fact and fiction collide in that way. But I’m lucky in that there always comes a moment when I just want to get on with it. And as you can imagine, getting to know a beautiful place like Portmeirion was really tough!
3) Alfred Hitchcock is a legend in the film industry and many books have been written about him and his peculiar humour and manipulating ways. Did you find him such a fascinating character and did you have to be careful about having your opinion swayed by all the material available?
The Hitchcock research could certainly have gone on forever, but I limited myself to his time in England; most of the book is set in 1936, when he’s at the top of the British film industry and starting to think about Hollywood, and I wanted to explore what that moment was like for him and those close to him without being influenced by too much detailed knowledge of what was to come in America - because you’re right, at that point he did start to become a legend rather than a human being. But in the 1930s, his concerns were very human ones, recognisable to us all - his wife and a young daughter, the triumphs and failures in his work, private doubts about his own abilities and frustrations about being pigeon-holed, fears of what the future might hold if he went to America. And I think people are always more interesting when power is new to them, before they create a life that they can’t get out of.
4) The beginning of ‘Fear in the Sunlight’ starts in 1954, two years after Tey’s death. How did this make you feel when you knew your main ‘character’ had died by this time?
Those were very sad parts of the book to write for me, but it was important because the way Tey died - privately, without telling any of her friends she was ill - says a lot about the way she lived and what kind of person she was. And it was better for me to do that sooner rather than later! I read an interview with David Suchet recently, in which he talked about filming ‘Curtain’, the last Poirot, out of sequence; after having such a close relationship with the character, he didn’t want to kill him off and just go home - and I feel much the same about Josephine. I hated the idea of building the series to the ‘death’ novel, so to be able to write about it now and then have her back in 1937, alive and well and with some fascinating years still ahead, was a way of counteracting that sadness.

It also tied in well with one of the themes of the book. Hitchcock’s greatest fear was to know the future, to see the happiness and the misery ahead, and that interested me. Unlike most characters in crime novels, Josephine Tey isn’t mine to ‘kill off’; she’s a real person who, as much as I wish it were different, died in 1952. To face the reader with that at the beginning, and to filter the rest of the book through a sense of loss and grief for her, was a way of putting Hitchcock’s theory to the test.
5) ‘Fear in the Sunlight’ is based on events in Portmeirion, which is now associated with ‘The Prisoner’ TV series in the 1960s. As with the great P.D. James do you feel that the place itself is as important as the plot?
Absolutely. The setting is crucial, and determines to a great extent the sort of plot it will be, the sort of novel it will be, and that’s been true of all the books. I first went to Portmeirion because Tey went there with some close friends in 1934 after the run of her play, Queen of Scots - there’s a brilliant picture of them in The Tatler, looking very ‘West End on holiday’! - and it was a significant visit for her. But I knew very quickly that I wanted to set a book there - it’s such a remarkable place. For a start, the spirit of how it was originally conceived by Clough Williams-Ellis is still very much alive, so it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in the 1930s. There’s so much glamour and legend attached to it; the visits from the Prince of Wales, The Dog Cemetery in the woods and the eccentricity of the woman who created it - all that is true. And it’s a place of illusion: the architecture is striking, playful and unique, and nothing is quite what it seems, so it’s the perfect setting for Hitchcock’s sleight of hand. Add to that the fact that the village is closed to all but a handful of residents overnight, and you have the ultimate locked room, the perfect playground for a killer.

It’s a necessary evil of writing crime fiction that you trash the places you love - with anger, with suspicion and, in this case, with a lot of blood. So I’m really pleased that Clough’s grandson, Robin Llywelyn, has embraced the book for Portmeirion, and that I’ll be allowed back in! And never in a million years did I think I’d have a place on The Prisoner website!
6) You appear to have enjoyed portraying Alma Reville in your book. As the ‘power behind the throne’ did you feel she was even more interesting than Hitchcock himself?
For me, she was much more interesting. She started in film about four years before him, and was already a respected figure in editing and continuity when he got a job at the studios designing title cards for silent films. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was their partnership that interested me, their lifelong personal and professional collaboration. By the time the book is set, she had worked with Hitch on some of his biggest successes, as well as other films in her own right, and he set more store by her opinion than by anyone else’s. When they went to America in 1939, the difference in the Hollywood studio system - which gave Hitchcock less independence - meant that her role was no longer a professional one, and I imagine that must have been hard for her. But she was still incredibly influential: he always wanted her on set for the first week of filming, and it was Alma - ever the sharp editor - who famously noticed Janet Leigh blink while she lay as a ‘corpse’ in the shower. They re-cut the scene and it went on to be one of film’s most iconic moments.

In 1979, when Hitch was finally awarded the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, his acceptance speech named only four people: a film editor; a script writer; the mother of his daughter; and 'as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen'. All of them were Alma Reville. I hope the book puts her achievements back into focus.
7) ‘Fear in the Sunlight’ is loosely based around Tey’s experiences when her novel ‘A Shilling for Candles’ was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock. Your new book has a lot about the world of film and is populated with many actors. Did your time in the world of theatre help you when writing about these actors and the world they populate?
I think what struck me most was the difference in acting between my time in the theatre and the 1930s. Most of the actors I’ve been lucky enough to know have to be so versatile - they turn their hand to stage or big screen or television and adapt their craft accordingly. If they didn’t, they’d never survive. Back then, it was very much a feeling of us and them between stage and screen - and Hitchcock was characteristically outspoken in reinforcing that attitude. John Gielgud was a perfect example: Hitchcock hired him for ‘Secret Agent’ and he was terrible, partly because he saw film as an easy alternative and a fast way of making money. And as Ronnie says in the book, putting Gielgud next to Madeleine Carroll on screen and expecting sparks to fly was incredibly optimistic!

But my time in theatre served me well for the books in general - I got to see all the uncertainties and triumphs and jealousies first hand, the very extreme highs and lows of acting as a vocation. More importantly, I saw how hard most actors work and how dedicated they are - and that’s exactly the same now as it was in the 1930s.
8) Tey appears to be a bundle of contradictions - a woman who keeps her thoughts and feelings close and lived a secluded lifestyle in Inverness and yet courted London with her books and plays. Did you know that Tey could be described as two women when you started looking at her life?
Yes - that’s what fascinated me about her. I love her contradictions - to me, they make her very human. And I think they seem more alien to us now than they would have been at the time. She was adapting her life to her circumstances, like a lot of women did between the wars - look at Vita Sackville West or Virginia Woolf or Carrington. Tey was less public and less extreme - but she still kept her life in compartments and was different things to different people: private, as you say, in Inverness; carefree and more gregarious in London and on travels abroad.

Then there’s her sexuality. Half the world is convinced she was a lesbian, based as far as I can see on the fact that she was a PE teacher and never married. Hardly unusual for a woman of her time. The other half swears blind that she was - as someone once charmingly put it to me - ‘sexually normal’. I could show you letters, by her and by other people that back it up either way. But that’s the point - sexuality is more complex than that. People are more complex than that. And a novel gives space and time to bring that out.

There’s a sequence of photographs - taken, as it happens in Portmeirion - which I love because it captures all this on film. The first one is the Tatler I mentioned earlier - she’s Gordon Daviot the playwright, tightly permed hair, intellectual glasses, suit, and butter-wouldn’t-melt pose; in the others, she’s glasses off, tousle-haired, heavy-eyed and smiling, with a pint of beer in her hand (actually, I think it’s a half pint). God knows what happened in between, but good for her!
9) With all the research you’ve done on Josephine Tey do you think you’ll ever write a biography of her?
Not in the way that I originally set out to do, although I will at some stage get around to putting more of the research on my website. I know of at least four people who are writing a biography, planning a biography, finishing one or giving up on one - and that’s probably enough! I am, though, thinking about another project on Tey and her circle which is factual, and which my partner and I will do together.

But there’s an awful lot of her real life in the novels and that’s very satisfying for me. And if a biography does come out, it’ll be fun to see if anything I’ve made up has passed into history as truth.
10) Normally I ask what is your favourite crime novel. But as you were’s Fresh Blood author in April 2008 with ‘An Expert in Murder’ I have already asked you that. In fact, you had three books! ‘The Franchise Affair’ by Josephine Tey, ‘On Beulah Height’ by the great Reginald Hill and ‘Death in Holy Orders’ by the wonderful P.D. James. So my only question is - do you have a new favourite or any you’d like to change from the above?
If I’ve had three already, I probably shouldn’t push my luck, although the crime novel I’ve most enjoyed recently is ‘Green for Danger’ by Christianna Brand. I loved its setting and its humour and its originality - in lots of ways, it reminded me of a Josephine Tey.

I certainly wouldn’t change any of my original choices. PD James has done so much to modernise the crime novel; when she and Ruth Rendell began publishing, the genre was at a crossroads and could have become either a nostalgic form of entertainment or a living, breathing reflection of our times - and it’s because they made it the latter that people like me still get publishing contracts. Phyllis is a huge inspiration to me, personally and through her work, and I think ‘Death in Holy Orders’ is such a brilliant fusion of theme, setting and character. I wish I’d written it!

Reginald Hill taught me how to be brave with a series, how the lives of the characters can carry the story in tandem with the crime. I was one of many new writers lucky enough to be personally encouraged by Reg as well as inspired by his books; his death was a great sadness. He always loved receiving a new novel, and I was wondering only a couple of days before I heard the news what he would make of ‘Fear in the Sunlight’. It takes some of the sparkle out of publishing a book when some of the people who are important to you are no longer there to read it; the story is a little unfinished, somehow, and I’ll miss him and his comments very much.