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It’s A Mystery: “Truth is the daughter of time”

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An Expert in Murder

By Nicola Upson
Harper, 2009

Angel with Two Faces

By Nicola Upson
Harper, 2010

The famous author as sleuth is enormous fun. Felons have been bested by Austen, Doyle, Poe, Hemingway and Dos Passos, to cite but a few gumshoes with literary name recognition. Add to the list Josephine Tey, the pseudonym Elizabeth MacKintosh chose to write her mystery novels. There are eight of them, all gems, but more of that later. For now, attention must be paid to Nicola Upson, whose debut novel, An Expert in Murder, uses Tey as the detective protagonist.

When the novel opens, it is 1933. Josephine Tey is on a train traveling from her home in Inverness, Scotland to London to oversee the final week of her hit play, Richard of Bordeaux. At one of the stops, a young woman enters her carriage. Coincidentally (ahem), she is an ardent Tey fan and is on her way to the capital to see Richard in its final week. Her name is Elspeth Simmons—she recognizes Tey from a magazine piece, she has seen the play many times, and she gushes rather charmingly. By the time they reach London, Tey has taken Elspeth under her wing. They disembark, planning to meet again soon. But the next time Tey encounters Elspeth it is as a corpse. She’s been brutally murdered and propped up to face two souvenir dolls from Tey’s play, made specially to look like the characters in it. Just one of several clues that connect Tey to the victim.

The connection is not lost on Detective Inspector Archie Penrose of New Scotland Yard. As an old and valued friend of Tey’s, he is as perplexed as he is dismayed. When another murder occurs, this one more closely tied to Richard’s author and players, Tey and the policeman join forces. They uncover evidence that suggests both crimes are linked to a murder committed amid the devastating trench warfare of WWI; a war, as it happens, that resonates intimately with Penrose and Tey and a past that they share.

Inspector Penrose, Upson’s creation and the Yard’s “star turn,” as it were, herein is Tey’s model for her Inspector Alan Grant. At the time of An Expert in Murder, Grant had been introduced in The Man in the Queue, Tey’s first mystery novel (1929). The Man in the Queue was originally written under the name Gordon Daviot, the pseudonym Tey used for her play Richard of Bordeaux both in real life and in this novel. Throughout, Upson deliciously blends fact and fiction, something she learned from Tey.

For whatever reason this girl’s murder was linked to her play…. He wished he could promise the sort of tidy solution with which she had concluded her first detective story, but he couldn’t insult her intelligence in that way…. He might long for the sort of luck that his fictional counterpart Inspector Alan Grant had enjoyed on his debut outing, but he and Josephine both knew that the reality of death was different, that murder brought with it a contagious messiness, a strain of grief, horror and disruption which refused to be contained within the pages of a novel.

Upson uses the form of the Golden Age detective novel (1919-39)—the plot even involves a locked room, a signature twist in fiction of the period—but she infuses it with contemporary sensibilities. For instance, Upson is franker and less judgmental about gay and lesbian culture than authors of the 1930’s and 40’s were able to be. John Terry (John Gielgud), the very successful lead in Richard, makes no secret of being gay. Lydia Beaumont, the female star of Richard, is having a very open affair with Marta Fox, a novelist. Marta (Hallard), by the way, is the name of one of Tey’s most successful recurring characters. All clear so far?

Upson meticulously creates many striking period details. She provides an elegant inventory of the architectural and interior design features of the story’s locations. Her characters are wonderfully drawn from real people who populated the London theater world of that era. An Expert in Murder is an erudite tour de force, teeming with literary pseudonyms and disguised identities. It is also a lovely layered puzzle with an ending that would have delighted Tey.

Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson’s second novel to feature Josephine Tey as a detective, Angel with Two Faces, is even better than the first. At its start, a world-weary Tey accepts an invitation from Inspector Penrose to spend the summer on his family’s estate, Loe House, in Cornwall. The company includes Archie’s cousins, the Motleys. They are the beguiling, slightly eccentric sisters who helped her get through last year’s trauma involving Richard of Bordeaux. They are taken from the real life theater designers. Indeed, in the theater world the Motley name draws recognition to this day.
Her arrival coincides with the unexpected funeral of Harry Pinching, a young estate worker and family friend. Harry was a thoroughly charming rogue, whose “accidental” death touches the whole community, especially Loveday, the younger sister he cared for. As one of the cousins confides to Josephine:

Loveday’s not exactly a child. I suppose she’s about fourteen, but she’s always been precocious and her outlook on the world can be a little—well fanciful. To be honest with you, I don’t think she’s quite right in the head, but nobody would ever say that. They just accept her for what she is. The parents are both dead, but there’s another sister—Harry’s twin—and the three of them were devoted to each other. I dread to think how this has affected them.

Harry’s death may be declared an accident, but not to Archie Penrose. There are too many details that don’t add up. In the end, it’s a busman’s holiday for Archie and a welcome procrastination device for Josephine who is trying to write her second crime novel and is afflicted with a heavy case of writer’s block. Said affliction is partially due to reuniting with Penrose, her beloved real-life Alan Grant.

Once again, a nagging little voice with a definite Highland twang whispered the word ‘deadline’ in her ear but she chose to ignore it…. She set off for Loe House, leaving the lake behind for a moment…she saw Archie on his way over to meet her and realized to her surprise that she was a little nervous of seeing him, too. It was over a year since they had spent any amount of time together—and that had been in the middle of a murder inquiry which affected them both deeply….

Now they are part of this closely-knit Cornish community with its strong bonds and even stronger grudges. Everyone’s got a history connected to the estate where they’ve lived and worked together for generations. It’s a kind of coterie that at times becomes tense and incestuous. It’s an alliance of place and people intertwined with folklore and superstition:

They [Archie and Josephine] sat down on the edge of the bridge for a moment. Looking back towards the lake…. ’Did I tell you that lots of towns and villages down here still celebrate their own feast week?’ Josephine nodded. ‘Well ours is this week….The boat by the Lodge is for the final night. You see, the Loe was where Excalibur was thrown when Arthur died.’

She raised a doubtful eyebrow….’Oh yes—the Loe and a thousand other lakes. Don’t forget I live next door to the Loch Ness Monster. “You’re talking to an expert in legends for the gullible.’

‘…None of those other lakes has Tennyson on its side. It’s all in “The Passing of Arthur.”’

“Oh well, that’s different,’ said Josephine with good-natured sarcasm. ‘If it’s that specific, it must be true.’

‘Quite,’ said Archie, laughing.

It is important to note that Upson’s Josephine Tey is wish fulfillment personified. Her Tey is warm, wise, witty, urbane, sociable, mischievous, a bit of a clotheshorse, and very with it; whereas the real Tey was almost a recluse. She termed herself “a lone wolf” and generally discouraged attempts at fraternization. As Robert Barnard said elsewhere, she is a writer who lives by her works alone. Such a character is completely at odds with the Tey that emerges from her own novels. That Tey is Upson’s Tey.

These two novels are truly grand pieces of literary detection with an ensemble cast directed with real flair. The ending of Angel with Two Faces brings about a consolidation of the criminal plot and neatly paves the way for the next volume in the series.

The question arises, do you have to have read Tey to enjoy these books? I think not. And I am certain that if you have not read her, this delightful duo will send you to her work. Be sure and read them in chronological order!

Of the eight mystery novels that Josephine Tey wrote, I have three favorites. The Franchise Affair (1948), Brat Farrar (1949), and The Daughter of Time (1951). All three are on the Mystery Writers of America’s list of the top 100 mystery novels of all time. All votes counted toward giving The Daughter of Time its number four ranking, beaten only by the first, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, the second, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, and the third, Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. Tey keeps only the best company.

The Franchise Affair owes its idea to the eighteenth century case of Elizabeth Canning. Elizabeth claimed to have been kidnapped, robbed, knocked unconscious, and locked in a loft to starve in January 1753. To this day a debate continues about whether her story is true. In Tey’s novel, a young woman named Betty Kane accuses Marion Sharpe and her mother, who live quietly at a rundown estate known as The Franchise, of brutally kidnapping her and holding her hostage for a month. Marion calls the easygoing solicitor Robert Blair for help, denying that any such event occurred. Blair reluctantly takes up the case, which disrupts his orderly and predictable life, and painstakingly solves the mystery which has stumped even Alan Grant.

Brat Farrar doesn’t have Alan Grant. It celebrates English country life, in particular horse breeding, an occupation about which Tey appears quite knowledgeable. At Latchett’s, an estate in the English Midlands, an aunt is caring for the orphaned Ashby brood, twin brothers and three sisters. Patrick Ashby disappears at age thirteen but eight years later, just as his twin brother Simon is on the verge of turning twenty-one and inheriting the family fortune, Brat Farrar shows up claiming to be Patrick. He’s been carefully coached to impersonate Patrick, he’s a natural with horses, and he’s got everybody fooled – well, maybe not Simon. After a series of neat twists and turns, Brat culminates in a shocking conclusion.

The Daughter of Time, her classic about Richard III, is the crown jewel, so to speak, of Tey’s output. It is an account of Grant’s search for the truth about the venomous, hunchback monster—the Plantagenet with a firm place among history’s villains. Except that Grant, flat on his back in a hospital bed, with nothing to go on but a portrait, sets out to prove that Richard was no monster. The mystery demonstrates that once an idea becomes “fixed” in a culture, people resist changing their opinions on the matter, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Grant’s first doubt, succeeded by others, makes an exciting narrative. The terms in which Tey renders the processes of scholarly detection are memorable. Not for nothing is this considered by many to be the most astonishing detective story of them all.

For me, Josephine Tey’s most impressive accomplishment is that I return to her mystery novels periodically, especially my three favorites, and read them as if for the first time.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey. You can find all her “It’s a Mystery” reviews here.