Nicola Upson

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.

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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.

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