Fresh Blood

Name: Nicola Upson

Title of Book: An Expert In Murder

'... an extremely accomplished first novel...'

It is the last week of the run of Josephine Tey’s play, Richard of Bordeaux, in London’s West End. To mark the celebrations of a marvellous run, Josephine travels to London from Scotland. On the train she meets a young woman called Elspeth Simmons who has seen the play many times and views Tey as a heroine of some sort. While down in London, Elspeth plans to see the play one last time that week with a secret admirer.

On arriving at Paddington, Tey, enchanted by the girl’s innocent quality, tells her to come backstage and offers to introduce Elspeth to the cast. Sadly, the next day Josephine hears of the girl’s murder on the very platform she had left her on. It seems Elspeth was murdered within minutes of Tey leaving her. Soon Tey finds that Elspeth’s sinister death has permutations that echo around the theatre where her own play is showing. What is the connection between this sweet Scottish girl and a play that is coming to a close?

Tey’s friend and admirer, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, is on the case and soon another murder that also strikes too close to home for Tey means that she becomes involved with a state of affairs going back many years to the Great War...

Nicola Upson’s first novel of a planned series ingeniously includes the well known real-life crime writer Josephine Tey. It is always with some trepidation that a reader approaches a book that boasts having a real crime writer star between its covers, especially someone who is as revered as Tey – especially as she was a burgeoning talent who was cut down far too early in her career. However, you can tell from Upson’s delicate handling of Tey’s character that she has a great sense of respect for this writer.

The one thing to be thankful for is the fact that Upson has wisely decided not to make Tey an amateur sleuth, leaving the actual detecting to Archie Penrose, with Tey finding out the personal facts of the people involved as they class her more a friend than a detective.

Upson appears to have researched this period extensively and has been able to interview people who actually worked on the production of Richard of Bordeaux which lends the whole piece a sense of extraordinary authenticity. The era is evoked beautifully and like a good, classic P.D. James, the tale slowly smoulders along nicely until the final denouement.

This is an extremely accomplished first novel and one that bodes well for the others if An Expert in Murder is the bench mark for the subsequent novels in the series. Definitely worth reading.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, even…) of crime novel would you say you write in?
It's very much a detective novel which follows the classical English format - suspicious death, tight-knit community of suspects etc - and it's set in 1934, so it falls within the genre of period fiction. There are also several novels now which feature a real person in fictional roles, and somebody is bound to have invented a term for that! If so, that would also describe An Expert in Murder.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I love both, and particularly admire authors such as PD James, Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill who move successfully between series and stand alone novels, or Susan Hill, who moves in and out of the crime genre. It's great to look forward to a new outing from favourite characters - the new Dalziel and Pascoe is always a highlight of my reading year - but now that there are so many people writing high-quality series, it does put the pressure on a bit to keep up with everything! I'm ashamed to say that I've fallen a couple of books behind now with some of the people I'd been following religiously - Patricia Cornwell, Stephen Booth, CJ Sansom, Linda Fairstein, Ian Rankin - and I'm looking forward to catching up over the summer when I've handed my second book in.

My loyalties are fairly evenly divided between British and American authors. I enjoy good period fiction, too - and by that I mean anything ranging from the Golden Age - particularly Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin and obviously Josephine Tey - to James Ellroy, and David Peace's incredible Red Riding Quartet, which is a remarkable achievement.
3) Your central detective character is “Golden Era” novelist, Josephine Tey. What made you focus on a real character in this way?
The book started many years ago as non-fiction - a biography of Elizabeth Mackintosh (aka Josephine Tey/Gordon Daviot), whose work I loved and who seemed to me to be vastly underrated in comparison with her contemporaries. But although Tey’s work was well-documented, her private life left many questions unanswered and a number of gaps emerged which started to intrigue me as much as the facts. After a long time of banging my head against a wall, my partner suggested that I recreate her as a fictional character based on what we know, and it seemed ideal to put her in the genre for which the name Tey was famous. The end result is a series of fictional mysteries hung on a strong biographical thread. If people like the books, they’ll run until 1952, when Elizabeth Mackintosh died at the age of just 55. It’s a great period of time to write about, and the books will reflect her life as she grows older and follow the pattern of her work.

As sometimes happens, the minute I closed the door on a non-fiction book on Tey, things started to emerge which make it possible after all; a lot of new sources of information have come to light since I started making things up! It’s been odd to discover that many of the details of her life that I put into the first book have since turned out to be more accurate than I could have imagined, and my partner has been busy collating letters and diaries from a number of different people which paint a fascinating picture, so we are planning to work on a book together which we hope will give an insight into the real lives of the theatrical community of that period, with Tey at its centre.
4) Your book features the run of Tey’s play “Richard of Bordeaux”, starring John Gielgud. What prompted you to start the series from this perspective?
Because it was her first big success and because I love theatre - all the books will have some sort of theatrical link. Theatre was a huge part of Elizabeth Mackintosh's personal and professional life: she wrote Richard of Bordeaux under the name of Gordon Daviot, and it ran for over a year in the West End, turned John Gielgud from a respected classical actor into a commercial star, and gave her many of her most enduring friendships. It was a moment of real contrasts, which are great for any novel: I loved setting the glamour of the West End against the misery of the depression and the aftermath of the Great War; and, for Tey, there was the more personal difficulty of balancing success and fame, which she was never comfortable with. The book’s set in the last week of the run, when some of the shine had worn off and egos were starting to clash - and that’s a marvellous background for a fictional murder.
5) The flavour of the era is well drawn. How much research did you do into this period of recent history?
Lots - and it was a joy to do. I was lucky enough to speak to some of Tey's friends and professional colleagues before they died, most notably Sir John Gielgud and Margaret Harris, one of the design team 'Motley' who created the sets and costumes for Richard of Bordeaux. The wealth of information and gossip which they shared has enabled me to create a truthful account of the stage at the time and Tey's part in it, as well as giving wonderful insights into her character which were often at odds with some of the mythology that has been passed down about her. I also spent quite a bit of time in Inverness, looking into that side of her life, which was very, very different to her London existence.

The First World War features heavily in the book and, as I read more about it, I was astonished to find out how much of an impact its suffering still had into the early 1930s. It's not hard to see what made Richard of Bordeaux so popular - it was strongly, if unintentionally, pacifist in its tone and the sheer glamour and romance of the setting must have been a welcome respite to its audiences, some of whom went 30 or 40 times to see it. I've worked in theatre marketing and you just don't get theatregoers like that any more!

I work on the background for the books with my partner, who has a passion for social history. The seeds of the plot invariably come from something that we turn up in the early stages of the research. It's a very exciting part of the process.
6) Do you intend to continue with many of the featured characters in the following books in the series?
Absolutely. Obviously Josephine will always be there, as will my fictional detective, Archie Penrose. He’s important because, although Josephine is a central character, I don’t want her to be another Miss Marple. The detection in the book has to be as real as it can be and appropriate to the time. Luckily, all the policemen of the time seemed to have had the sort of ego that resulted in an autobiography, so there's plenty of research material available.

The Motley sisters are series characters, too; they're a great foil for some of the darker parts of the stories and, if I'm honest, Ronnie has all the lines that I would love to be brave enough to use myself.

Some of the other characters from An Expert in Murder will also appear in subsequent books; I can't say which, for fear of giving away some of the plot, but it's a bit like having a travelling repertory company of actors to draw on when the role is there for them.
7) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
It's a strange combination, but I'd have to say Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. From an author's point of view, one of the bravest things I've ever read involves two Reginald Hill novels.
8) What is your favorite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
I have a very soft spot for the 1950s version of The Franchise Affair, partly because it's such a beautiful snapshot of the era and partly because I spent a memorable afternoon with Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, who gave me a great deal of information on the film and the cinema of the period - that's been invaluable, as Tey was a huge film fan and it's marvellous to have an understanding of what that would have meant at the time.

More recently, it would definitely be Atonement - not a crime novel in the purist sense, but certainly the unfolding of a mystery and the tragic consequences of a single act, which form the heart of most good crime fiction. I thought it was a beautiful film and a wonderfully sensitive adaptation.
9) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
Yes, although when I talk to other crime fans, I realise what a long way I have to go before I could call myself an expert. My top three - in no particular order - would be:

Josephine Tey: she was so unpredictable, and way ahead of her time by focusing on the aftermath of crime rather than a conventional battle between good and evil. There is a remarkable realism in her sense of place and character, and her voice is unique. Andrew Taylor refers to her as the Jane Austen of crime fiction, and I think that's a beautiful expression of what's so special about those eight crime novels.

Reginald Hill: I love the way that he includes humour in his novels without trivialising the crime at the heart of them, and creates genuinely likeable characters who grow from book to book.

PD James: invariably, her books achieve that perfect fusion of setting and theme which is so rare. More than anyone else, she has proved that it's possible to explore serious and enduring themes through a form which is often regarded as frivolous. If it weren't for everything that she's done to make the genre both popular and respected, I doubt there would be as many opportunities or as big a market for new writers.
10) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
Can I have one of each from my top three?! The Franchise Affair; On Beulah Height; Death in Holy Orders.