The crime of
Clarity is a casualty of Nicola Upson’s murder mystery, says Susie Maguire
ANEXPERTINMURDER Nicola Upson
AFaber £12.99 side from the compulsory wearing of cloche hats, life in the 1930s might have been rather desirable, particularly for women who love to read: it’s when some of the best female crime writers began their careers. One such was a Scot, Elisabeth Mackintosh, who wrote plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot and novels as Josephine Tey. She’s probably best known for the 1932 play Richard of Bordeaux, which gave John Gielgud his first major theatrical success, and for her ingenious re-examination of the reputation of Richard III in the novel The Daughter of Time (1951).
Most of her other books feature the quietly charismatic Detective Inspector Alan Grant and his glamorous (platonic) friend and leading actress of the London stage, Marta Hallard. Tey’s familiarity with the theatrical milieu provided the context for a number of clever fiction plots, playing with themes of false identity, escape from family expectations, and revenge for injustice. About Tey’s personal life little is known, which is, of course, a gift to a 21st-century novelist writing crime fiction set in that period – and what could be better than to revisit it through the experiences of the brilliantly observant Miss Tey herself?
As a first novel, Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder is commendable in its ambition. Clearly an enthusiast for theatre, Upson deploys a mixture of fictional characters and real habitues of that world of thespian dreams and backstage dramas. Her story, written in the third person,
begins with Tey travelling to London by train to view the last performance of her famous play. Sharing her carriage is Elspeth Simmons, a young milliner, and – coincidentally – a great admirer of Daviot’s/Tey’s work. Indeed, Simmons, whom we learn is adopted, is on her way to meet her swain, a young man somehow connected with the play’s production, and – coincidentally again – her uncle is a collector of theatrical memorabilia. Upson manages to pack a lot of information and intrigue into these opening pages, and if you like your crime fiction complicated, reliant on double-handfuls of coincidence and bursting with red herrings, then you’ll read on with gusto. However, as the novel continues into whodunnit territory, with the introduction of a murder filled with symbolism, a Grant- template detective inspector and his flatfooted subordinates, and sundry theatrical personalities with bohemian private lives, the plot tangles into multiple knots.
Comparison of Upson’s writing ability with Tey’s is inevitable, and the first casualty is language. Upson’s cast speak anachronistically, using expressions like “get smashed”, “get on my tits” and “kept it together”. An actor remarks, without irony, upon someone “acting strangely” and, though Tey is apparently “possessed of a puckish, sarcastic wit”, we don’t find evidence of it here. The second and worst casualty is our sympathy; whereas Tey could entertain and tease with an array of possible suspects, and make us like and understand her villains, Upson has so many – characters, suspects, and villains – none of whom are particularly sympathetic, that who killed whom and why eventually ceases to be of interest. By the end, with the inevitable passages of revelation about how all the coincidences tie up, culminating in a very lengthy speech from the gun-wielding murderer in emotional extremis, and followed by reams of back-story explanation, the whole thing topples into melodrama.
“God, it’s like something out of a Greek tragedy,” remarks the copper, but it’s even more like a French farce. Setting a story in a historical context makes it much riskier to carry off, if it brings the necessity to provide huge tracts of explanation to modern readers. Upson is hamstrung not just by that, but by her own theatricality: she does more telling than showing, relying on the characters’ dialogue to convey information at length, holding them offstage until they’re needed to illuminate the murk. In addition, despite invented episodes of past love and loss, one never really sees Josephine Tey as a person, with a writer’s inner life.
Using Tey as the focal point for a series of crime novels is a great idea, but this debut performance feels like a misfire. It’s to be hoped that further episodes will bring the author more assuredness of focus and style, in keeping with her fictional heroine’s own.
Nicola Upson plunges her historical heroine into a world of theatrical intrigue