Crime Fiction Alphabet: U

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

I’ve chosen Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight, the fourth novel featuring Josephine Tey, which I read on Kindle.

Summary from Fantastic Fiction:

Summer, 1936. The writer, Josephine Tey, joins her friends in the holiday village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained – and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, as fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing – and no one – is quite what it seems, Chief Inspector Archie Penrose becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the way the investigation is ultimately resolved. Several years later, another horrific murder, again linked to a Hitchcock movie, drives Penrose back to the scene of the original crime to uncover the shocking truth.

My thoughts:

I have mixed thoughts about this book, good and not so good. Overall I enjoyed it but I found it confusing with so many characters, introduced very quickly in the novel, and it was difficult to distinguish who they all were, with the exception, of course, of Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock. So, not well-defined characters.

However, the setting in Portmeirion is very well done and if you like lots of description that’s a bonus. I do like description, up to a point, but in this book I thought it intruded too much and held up the action. (Portmeirion is Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s Italianate creation in the Welsh countryside. It’s also the setting for the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, if you remember that as I do.) Set in the thirties it does give a good sense of the period between the two world wars with the shadow of the Great War still lingering and the threat of another war getting ever nearer. There is a general air of unhappiness, as Alma, Hitchcock’s wife says:

Perhaps it’s the times we have lived through, but we seem very good at destroying each other and not just through wars. We wear each other down all the time through little acts of jealousy or cruelty or greed. (location 1731)

And there are many such acts in Fear in the Sunlight as the murders pile up. I didn’t really have much idea what was going on until about halfway into the book when the writing became sharper, more focussed on the plot and characters.

I was interested in Nicola Upson’s inclusion of a discussion about writing, about mixing fact and fiction and also about the difference between a book and the film of the book. Here Josephine and Marta are talking about mixing fact and fiction, which is exactly what Nicola Upson does in her books:

‘Mix fact and fiction?’ Josephine asked, and Marta had to laugh at the disapproval in her voice. ‘How would that help restore the reputation of a much aligned man? No one would know what was true and what wasn’t.’

‘Exactly. That’s the fun of it. And a biography would only be your interpretation. At least calling it fiction is honest.’ (location 3548)

Josephine is at Portmeirion to discuss making a film of her book, A Shilling for Candles, with Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. She’s sceptical about the process of using her book as the basis for a film, but Alma tells her:

‘A film can’t just be a visual record of a book or it will never have a life of its own,’ she said.  … ‘It’s like any marriage, I suppose. The two things can coexist if they’re both good in their own right, and it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.’ (locations 1612-1620)

I’ll try to remember that next time I get irritated at the way a film or TV drama alters a book.

I think that Alfred Hitchcock is really the main character and I don’t know enough about him to be able to distinguish fact from fiction in Fear in the Sunlight, nor do I know that much about the thirties either to judge whether that’s an accurate picture, but I have no doubt that Nicola Upson has done her research. Hitchcock seems to have been a complicated and difficult character, a practical joker and a manipulator:

An experiment in fear and guilt, he had called it, but an exercise in control would have been more accurate. Staging a joke, like making a film, was a way of holding on to power, and Hitchcock had discovered long ago that the manipulation involved in both helped him to forget his own anxieties and doubts. (location 1088)

As you would expect he is a master of suspense:

‘Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight, perhaps fear in this very restaurant, where it is so unexpected – that is interesting’. (location 3465)

  • Format: Kindle Edition (also available in paperback)
  • File Size: 821 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber Crime (3 April 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007JVF6U2
  • Source: My own copy
  • My Rating 3/5

8 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet: U”

  1. Margaret – Thanks for such a thorough review of this one. It’s interesting that you would mention feeling there were too many characters, or at least that they were difficult for you to keep in mind. I was wondering exactly that when I was reading your description of the novel. It sounds though as though there is some interesting discussion about writing and I always find that fascinating. I may give this one a go.

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  2. This is also on my kindle to read, I have read her previous novels and enjoyed them.

    Good review, I can see I am going to have to pay attention in reading this book!

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  3. This is a very interesting and detailed review. I have not read any of this series but hope to try the first one soon. I was very interested in the information about Portmeirion, as all of my family are fans of The Prisoner. And it would be interesting to read about Hitchcock in this context, if it is close to the truth.

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  4. I had problems with the first one in this series and as a consequence haven’t gone back to it. It’s interesting, however, that in a new book where crime writers write about others who have influenced them, John Connolly says in the introduction that more of them mentioned Josephine Tey than any other author. clearly, she proves something of a magnet to her successors.

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