Author of the Month

Name: Nicola Upson

First Novel: An Expert in Murder

Most Recent Book: Nine Lessons

'...a truly astonishing book and one that shows Upson has grown in stature as a writer. '

Years before the Great War, M.R. James would invite a select few friends and scholars to join him on Christmas Eve after the carol service at Kings College. There, by candlelight, James would read out his latest ghost story. But one year James didn’t finish a new story for that particular Christmas – and now in 1937, twenty-five years later, some of the boys who attended that reading are being killed off in an imaginative and hideous manner. It is up to Chief Inspector Archie Penrose to solve this macabre series of killings.

Josephine Tey is currently in Cambridge, having taken the plunge to live with Marta, who has to go to America for a few months, leaving Josephine alone, just when a brutal rapist is prowling the streets, paranoia from the newspapers leaving women vulnerable. It will only be a matter of time before his brutal attacks will escalate and be fatal: and when it does it will affect Josephine and all those around her.

I don’t know where to start with this book. There is so much Upson puts in to her new book, it is a bit like being shown a huge festive feast and asked to choose one single dish! Upson’s novel is so multi-layered it is difficult to know where to start.

‘Nine Lessons’ is ingrained with the macabre as each twisted death resonates with the tales of the ghost stories of M.R. James. Even the feel of Upson’s prose has the sense of the Gothic about it and one can tell that Upson is a big fan of James’ stories and shows them the reverence they deserve.

Archie Penrose is a great detective, but Upson does not shy away from showing us the man behind the warrant card. He is vulnerable and emotionally adrift, leading him to feel more than he should in his profession towards someone caught up in these sadistic murders. The reveal when it arrives is shocking, but also tinged with sadness that so many people were affected by another’s transgressions.

Josephine Tey is more involved with a rapist who is stalking the streets of her newly adopted home, Cambridge. Never does Upson sensationalise these brutal attacks to propel her story, but instead transmits the fear of the women of Cambridge along with the suspicion that every man is a potential rapist. The hysteria is palpable as this great city is shaken by a monster despoiling its safe streets.

Upson finishes ‘Nine Lessons’ with a tragedy that marks a turning point for her characters, but out of darkness comes light and hope. It will be very interesting to see where she takes her cast in the next book.

I turned the last page having had wave after wave of emotions wash over me like the breakers on Aldeburgh beach. This is a truly astonishing book and one that shows Upson has grown in stature as a writer. Both Tey and Penrose are fully rounded and come to life on the page. In fact, I would go as far to say that I could see flashes of P.D. James’ influence here. This is an incredible book which I would beseech anyone to read. I have read tons of books this year, and I feel the best has been saved till last, so I am confident enough to claim that ‘Nine Lessons’ is my favourite book of 2017.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) Your new novel, ‘Nine Lessons’ centres around Kings College in Cambridge. As a resident of that great city, is this a ‘love letter’ to such a famous place and its landmarks?
It's certainly meant that way, although it could reasonably be pointed out that a book with a series of horrific murders and vicious rapes is rather a back-handed love letter! But you're right, it is a great city and, like many people who live there, I take it too much for granted. King's College Chapel is one of the most glorious buildings in the world, and yet nine times out of ten I scuttle past it on the way to the market square or the theatre, hunched against that peculiar brand of Cambridge cold that comes straight from Siberia! Nine Lessons has made me much more appreciative of all that is still beautiful about Cambridge, and very nostalgic for the 1930s town that Josephine and Archie are living in but which I never knew. I've spilt blood in lots of the places that are very important to me, but - like Portmeirion, the West End and the BBC - I suspect King's and Cambridge are strong enough to withstand the attentions of a crime writer who loves them.
2) The case Archie Penrose is investigating involves one of literatures most famous names, M.R. James. What was it about this man’s Gothic ghost stories that made you want to include them in your latest book? Are you a fan of James’ work?
A huge fan. I discovered his stories when I was a child and they've stayed with me ever since; like me, he grew up in Suffolk and went later to Cambridge, so lots of the places he writes about are close to my heart. And his creation of atmosphere and handling of suspense are second to none. They might have been written over a hundred years ago, but his best work is still terrifying: I have a good friend who, to this day, can't sleep in a twin-bedded hotel room, so frightened was she by 'the face of crumpled linen' that rises up from the sheets in 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad'!

And I've always been very taken with the tradition that James created in the telling of his tales while he was Provost of King's. Every Christmas Eve, after the college Carol service, he would disappear into his study and emerge with the ink still wet on the page, ready to read his new story to a handful of friends by the light of a single candle. When you write books like I do that mix fact and fiction, you're always looking for a small window in the truth to build your story from, and I found that in the fact that in December 1913, James failed to finish a story for the first time. I started thinking - why might that have been? What if something terrible happened that Christmas to interrupt the tradition? Something so terrible that - 25 years later - the young men gathered round to listen start dying, killed off one by one in ways that echo Monty's ghost stories? That was the starting point for the book.
3) Alongside is another set of upsetting circumstances with young women being attacked and raped. I believe this is based on a real case in Cambridge? Would you like to expand on this?
They're based on a series of real crimes committed by Peter Cook, the infamous Cambridge rapist or 'Beast of Bedsit Land'. These actually took place in 1974-75, and what fascinated me about them was not the attacks themselves but the effect that they had on a small university town: the fear and suspicion that gripped the city; the rumours in the press; the antagonism towards the police and the despair amongst the officers who worked the case; the relief and vitriol when the culprit was caught. To this day, you can still see evidence of the crimes in the iron bars which terrified women had put up at their ground floor windows. I've transported those crimes back to 1930s Cambridge to explore that feeling of vulnerability, when crimes are committed seemingly at random, and the perpetrator could be the ordinary man you sat next to on the bus or the taxi driver who always takes you home.

Several things struck me, but nothing more forcefully than a piece of advice in the newspaper, telling young women to open all their wardrobe and cupboard doors when they left for work in the morning; that way, if any of those doors were closed when they came home, they would know that something was wrong. That really chilled me, and I started to imagine what it would be like to live in that sort of climate.

My partner ran a music club in a Cambridge pub at the time of the rapist, and when he was finally caught and his photograph appeared in the newspaper, she realized that she had spoken to him every week: he worked for a wine merchant, and she had served him at the bar whenever he delivered supplies to the pub. It was that sudden, horrifying moment of realization that affected me; Josephine has the same revelation in the book, when the culprit finally steps forward from a crowd of possible suspects.

But the most important thing I wanted to show about those crimes in ‘Nine Lessons’ was that the horror of rape for the women affected doesn't end when the rapist is caught - that experience stays with them all their life, and they're forever changed. That's why the book is dedicated to the women who survived the real Cambridge rapist.
4) We all know that Josephine Tey was a real person who, decades after her death, is still in print today. How far removed is the character in your books from the real Josephine?
There's the small matter of her regular involvement in nasty murders, but other than that she's fairly truthful! All the books have begun with something real about her life or work: the play, Richard of Bordeaux, which was her big West End hit and gave her many of her lifelong friends; a yearlong love letter written to her by the actress Marda Vanne; Hitchcock's filming of her novel A Shilling for Candles; her Suffolk ancestry and her will; the plays she wrote for the BBC. She was a remarkable, fascinating woman, so there are things I really don't have to make up. Out of that kernel of truth, personal to her, all the plots develop, then gain their own momentum. The character I've created has a lot of me in her, too, but everything that's most important to her portrayal is what I've found from my research to be true - her complexity and occasional contrariness, her sexuality and independence, her spark and humour and intelligence, her attractiveness to others.

From the outset, I hoped to create a woman who'd be recognisable to the thousands of people who love her work, but also interesting and likeable for readers who had never heard of her. And of course in real life she was Elizabeth MacKintosh, so it's the Tey pseudonym that I'm playing with - the voice in those novels which I love. That's what's special about her - not her day-to-day life in Inverness, which was in some ways restricted and typical of many other women of her generation.
5) You introduce a new character named Phyllis. You had a close friendship with P.D. James whose first name was also Phyllis. Is this your homage to this great writer?
It's an affectionate nod, which I hope would have made her smile! The character isn't supposed to represent her - although Phyllis, like her namesake, did once work at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge - but, as you say, P.D. James was a great friend and a huge supporter of these books; in fact, it was Phyllis who encouraged the idea very early on with the immortal words: 'Well, dear - if it's legal, you must do it!' And she particularly loved my DCI, Archie Penrose, so giving her a connection to a detective whom she inspired felt very appropriate.
6) If you had the chance to give away one Josephine Tey title, which would it be and why?
I was going to say The Franchise Affair, which has always been my favourite, but I'm currently re-reading Brat Farrar, and it's so unusual and so typical of the way that Tey takes the Golden Age rule book and rips it to shreds before our very eyes that I think I'll choose that for a change! And it's her love letter to the South Downs, where the book I'm writing is set, so it will be by my bedside for a while.