Crime Fiction Alphabet: U is for Nicola Upson

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is letter-u
U.

Nicola Upson has written three novels featuring novelist Josephine Tey (Elizabeth Mackintosh 1896-1952):

  • An Expert in Murder
  • Angel with Two Faces
  • Two for Sorrow

She has also written two books of non-fiction:

  • Mythologies: Sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld
  • In Good Company: A Snapshot of Theatre and the Arts

I recently read An Expert in Murder, a very detailed and intricate murder mystery. Nicola Upson has a passion for the theatre and it shines through to great advantage in this book, set in the theatrical world of  the 1930s – March, 1934 to be precise, as the final week of Josephine Tey’s play Richard of Bordeaux begins. Josephine is travelling from her home in Inverness to London by steam train when she meets an enthusiastic fan, Elspeth Simmons, who boarded the train at Berwick-upon-Tweed. They chat and Josephine takes a liking to her, feeling protective towards her.

They arrive in London, but then Elspeth is murdered and soon afterwards Bernard Aubrey, the theatre owner is also found dead, poisoned. Detective Inspector Archie Primrose, a friend of Josephine’s investigates. It’s a blend of fact and fiction. I don’t know much about Elizabeth Macintosh and so this representation of her persona as Josephine Tey seemed wholly fictional and actually she is a minor character in the sequence of events and plays little part in discovering the murderer. I think, on the whole, there is too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ for my liking.

There is a great amount of family background, back stories and theatrical information that slowed down the action. But I liked the detailed descriptions of people and places and I especially liked the background details of the World War One, that had ended 16 years earlier but still cast its shadow. There are a number of coincidences in the book, but as Josephine tells Archie,

‘Anyway’, she continued wryly, ‘the only people who don’t believe in coincidence are the ones who read detective novels – and policemen. These things happen, Archie, even if we’re not supposed to use them in books. (page 45)

Reading An Expert in Murder made me think about mixing fact and fiction by using real people as characters. I decided that I don’t have a problem with historical fiction so wondered why its use in crime fiction should give me pause for thought. I think maybe it’s a step too far and I would have preferred it if Tey had been wholly a fictional character based on the author in the same way as John Terry, the leading actor in Tey’s play, is a fictionalised version of John Gielgud. Nicola Upson’s Author’s Note at the back of the book is interesting on this point when she explains that Elizabeth Mackintosh

… took a dim view of mixing fact and fiction – but she allowed it if the writer stated where the truth could be found, and if invention did not falsify the general picture. (page 290)

I think she succeeded in this, although, as she then adds

Murder, of course, does rather distort the general picture, but I hope that it won’t entirely eclipse a unique moment of theatrical history and the true beginnings of a remarkable writing career. (page 290)

I think that was a slight stumbling block for me, but I’m glad that it may have advertised Josephine Tey’s work to a wider audience. I haven’t read many of her books, but those I have read are excellent, especially The Daughter of Time.

Since reading An Expert in Murder I am interested in reading more of Nicola Upson’s Tey books and have  Angel with Two Faces lined up to read soon.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; paperback / softback edition (5 Feb 2009)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0571237711
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571237715
  • Source: I bought the book

5 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet: U is for Nicola Upson”

  1. Margaret – Interesting choice for “U.” You raise a good question, too: is mixing fact and fiction a problem? I’ve seen it done well but it takes a deft hand. You do make a good point, though, that if books like this make Tey’s work interesting to a wider audience, that’s got advantages..

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  2. I almost chose Nicola Upson for my “U” entry–it was a toss-up between her and Arthur W. Upfield (who I decided to feature). I have enjoyed her books based on Jospehine Tey–but I agree with you that it’s a little different mixing fact and fiction for Crime Fiction authors and historical figures. It’s interesting how many novels have come out recently with famous authors as “detectives.” There is Gyles Brandreth’s series with Oscar Wilde (and to a lesser extent Conan Doyle) and _What Alice Knew_ (with the James family by Paula Marantz Cohen–just to name a few off the top of my head. Amazing how different trends in fiction pop up.

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  3. I was very unhappy about this book, like you I felt uneasy about the lightly disguised use of real people and I quite deliberately haven’t read anymore. However, I do know that someone whose family featured in this book and who I believe are also in the third, really relished it. So perhaps I don’t have a right to complain.

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  4. Another point you made: the first rule for writers is show, don’t tell. I think too much telling rather than showing would bother me.

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